March 04, 2013

TAKE THIS WALTZ Is An Opus Of Infidelity

Lou: Hey Margot!  I just bought a new melon baller and I'd like to gouge out your eyes with it.  
Margot: Yeah, me too.
A few years ago I saw actor/director Sarah Polley's heartbreaking film Away From Her and it pretty much wrecked me.  It's the story of a older married couple whose relationship slowly deteriorates as the wife, masterfully portrayed by Julie Christie, slips further and further into the mental abyss that is Alzheimer's disease.  It's especially tragic because the couple is truly and completely in love, but the husband is rendered powerless in the face of his wife's mental erosion.  He watches her slip away and there's nothing he can do to stop it.

Polley's follow up, Take This Waltz, also deals with a crumbling marriage, albeit a much younger one.  However, here Polley grapples directly with the issue of choice, as well as slippery slope of emotional infidelity.  What struck me most is Polley's ability to frankly and honestly capture the terrifying, exciting, fragile, passionate, and ultimately destructive nature of a relationship where one person continues to deceive not only their partner, but also themself.

Michelle Williams plays Margot, a young Canadian travel brochure writer who is five years married to Seth Rogen's Lou, a nice guy focused on writing a cookbook entirely of chicken recipes.  While on assignment, Margot has a chance encounter with rickshaw driver Patrick (Luke Kirby), a guy with a peculiar mix of both laid back charm and smoldering intensity.  After some idle flirting on the plane ride home, Margot confesses that she's married, at which point Patrick confesses that he actually lives across the street from her.

The two begin to spend time together and their attraction is undeniable, but Margot is seriously conflicted.  After five years of marriage, she and Lou have settled into a groove as best friends who live together and care for each other.  When the two are lying in bed in the morning, or entertaining Lou's family for Sunday dinner, they have a strong emotional connection and appear by all rights to be completely adorable.  They care for one another and love to make each other laugh using silly voices or private jokes like a running gag where they describe all the ways they want to physically torture each other to express their love, e.g. the melon baller quote at the top.  And yet, something is missing.  Their sex life has gone adrift and whenever a sweet moment turns to physical romance, a single stray word or reaction freezes the moment cold.

Lou and Margot's caring but stagnant relationship absolutely resonated with me.  Over the years I tended to jump from one long term relationship to another and I've definitely been in that position before, maintaining a relationship that on one level simply isn't working because on another level everything is hunky dory.  It's just exhausting to bounce back and forth between the two states, perfectly content one moment and wholly frustrated (sexually or otherwise) the next.  There's a part of you that is terrified to leave something comfortable and familiar, so you convince yourself that if you just stick with it long enough, eventually you'll find your way back to happiness.  Then there's the part of you that's so desperate for connection that you'll accept temporary pain and heartbreak (yours and/or theirs) and even the possibility of serious regret for a chance at finding happiness in someone new.

And so Margot is drawn to Patrick, and while they never physically consumate their desires, there's no question that she's cheating on Lou.  She wakes up hours early just to be alone with him.  They go to an amusement park and ride on the twister together while listening to "Video Killed The Radio Star," rocking back and forth in the cart and always on the verge of kissing.  They even go for afternoon martinis one day, with Margot suddenly blurting out, "I want to know what you'd do to me," and Patrick quietly describing exactly what he'd do in prurient detail.

The whole thing culminates in a hypnotic sequence where Margot steps outside her house one night and says, loud enough for Patrick to hear from his porch, "I'm going for a swim."  She walks to the public pool, Patrick silently following a few steps behind her.  They don't acknowledge each other until they both jump into the water, swimming circles around each other, one floating above and the other diving below until Patrick eventually reaches out and touches her ankle.  The spell is instantly broken and Margot quickly apologizes and retreats home.

As much as she wants Patrick, Margot says she can't bring herself to hurt Lou.  She doesn't seem to consider the idea that she essentially already has, even if Lou doesn't know it yet.  I don't think this attitude is out of naivete, but rather a defense mechanism of emotional dishonesty.  During their initial airplane encounter, Margot tells Patrick that she a sort of phobia about connecting flights.  It's not that she's afraid of missing her flight, it's that she's afraid of being afraid.  She therefore pretends to have a leg injury so flight attendants will ferry her from terminal to terminal in a wheelchair.  This is essentially a reflection of her dual relationships.  She knows that her marriage is broken but she's afraid of both being alone and of missing a potential connection with Patrick, and that fear has driven her to bend the rules to the absolute point of breaking.

Eventually it's Patrick who realizes that the situation is untenable and one morning he packs up his car and moves out.  His departure finally forces Margot to admit the truth, both to herself and to Lou.  It's a really well executed sequence where we never see the actual conversation, but instead just get a series of quick-cutting close ups as Rogen runs through a dozen different emotions in reaction to her bombshell.  In a moment that's equally funny and heart wrenching, he finally suggests that Margot take a shower.  You see, there's been a running gag where whenever Margot is in the shower she gets a momentary blast of cold water.  While she thinks the plumbing is broken, Polley shows us that in reality Rogen keeps a cup of cold water nearby and splashes her sight unseen from over the shower curtain.  After he's convinced her to get into the shower once more, he again dumps the cold water on her but immediately pulls back the curtain.  When she realizes the truth, he says, "I thought, when we're 80 I'll tell Margot I've been doing this her entire life and it'll make her laugh.  It's kind of a long term joke."

Having admitted marital defeat, Margot runs off and finds Patrick and we're treated to an extended montage of the two making love in his new home as time passes.  The sex gets adventurous, including some pink fishnets and the presence of a few different third parties, until they too find themselves sitting wordlessly on the couch, watching dull TV interviews.  When Margot tells Patrick that she "wuves him" in the same silly baby voice she once used with Lou, he tiredly says he loves her back.  She's once again found herself stranded in yet another relationship that's left her feeling somehow unfulfilled.

The crux of the film is actually articulated by Sarah Silverman, playing Lou's alcoholic sister Geraldine.  Margot is called back to Lou's when Geraldine falls off the wagon and goes missing.  She soon returns and pulls Margot aside to call her out on her shit.  Geraldine isn't just sticking up for her brother, but really articulating some harsh truths that Margot's been loathe to admit to herself.  Equating her own alcoholic mistakes with Margot's fear of missed connections, she says, "Life has a gap in it, it just does. You don't go crazy trying to fill it like some lunatic."

I don't think the ultimate message here is to settle for the middling, but rather to recognize that no matter what you do, there's always going to be some part of your life that isn't quite where you want it to be.  It's that pursuit of happiness, the struggle to square our own individual circles that continues to drive us forward in this world and allows us to grow as individuals.  The key is to appreciate the love and happiness we've already been lucky enough to discover in our lives.  Otherwise we risk losing one joy in pursuit of another.

That's probably good advice for me, as I embark on this cinematic mission that was at least partially conceived to fill in the gaps in my own life, like some lunatic.

Title: Take This Waltz
Director: Sarah Polley
Starring: Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Luke Kirby, Sarah Silverman
Year Of Release: 2011
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (TV)

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