This week we find ourselves once again in the hands of a man we don’t fully understand. Not because he is deep or complex, but because he has no idea what he’s doing. When racking his brain for ideas he is reminded of a film that confused and disoriented him, a film he wants to better understand in hopes of better understanding himself. He writes about this movie to find solace, maybe even catharsis, which he knows he can find only in…The Tuesday Zone.
So as much as I hate to admit it, the creepy narrator is right. Let me set the scene a little, since Mr. Narrator here thinks he can steal all my glory. After all, this is my column.
Anyways, this recent summer some friends and I are sitting around one night, uncertain what to do. We browse the iTunes store for a movie to watch. We come across a poster with Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen—good so far—and a title that sounds neat: Take This Waltz. The poster’s also kinda cutesy. An adorable Canadian indie flick is something we can all dig.
So we play the trailer, and oh-dear-god-what-is-this-my-soul-is-crushed-and-I’ll-never-find-true-love-ever. You can watch it here, but if you’re in the mood for a summary, I’ll do that too:
Based solely on the trailer, a woman and man click on some level. Although she’s married to a decent fellow, she pursues the other guy because he’s pretty attractive. My friends and I sit there for a minute, taking in the fact that even a happily married couple might split up because some good-looking rickshaw driver comes along. But either way, we decide to do what any group of three men would: we eat ice cream and watch Take This Waltz.
That’s how I first saw Take This Waltz, with no expectations other than the potential of losing faith in love for a couple of days. I realized that there’s a hell of a lot going on in this movie, though. I didn’t know all of it then, and I don’t now, but I’m going to cover some of the things that stuck with me. They all fall under one general idea: this is a great movie that needs to be seen by a wide audience, because it’s going to rustle a lot of feathers in the best way possible.
So here’s a bit of a more detailed plot summary. There’ll be some spoilers, but it won’t ruin the movie for you. I think. Margot (Michelle Williams) meets Daniel (Luke Kirby) and they flirt a bit. However, she reveals to him that she’s married, which is a bit awkward since he lives down the street. They keep meeting up, sometimes by chance, more often by design, and her husband Lou (Seth Rogen) is pretty much clueless. She loves Lou, it appears; besides a few tiffs here and there, they’re a fairly adorable couple, but they’re a passionless one. Daniel, on the other hand, is passion incarnate. Margot can’t resist him.
Take This Waltz subverts about every norm used in most movies in regards to female characters. The subversion that’ll stick out to most people is the use of nudity. There’s one scene where Margo and Geraldine (Lou’s sister, played by Sarah Silverman) use a public shower and talk with a group of older women. The conversation itself is quite significant to the overall theme (which I’ll get to), but what is most striking is that everyone in this scene is completely nude and shot as such. The director, Sarah Polley, doesn’t use clever angles or awkward work-arounds to hide this. It’s just women taking a shower.
This scene stands out because nudity is so closely tied to sexuality in most movies, especially in regards to women. It’s easy to forget that being naked is just a state of not wearing clothes. Women in movies usually aren’t showing some skin unless it’s to bring in that 18-24 Male demographic, yet we have this scene in a movie with big name actors and actresses. Polley films it in such a blasé manner that we’re initially surprised and then brought to the realization that we shouldn’t be.
But what’s really unique about this movie is how it treats Margot, the main character. By a lot of standards, she’s a bit shameful. Lou is good to her and they love each other. She considers pursuing someone else anyways. That’s hard to justify, but Polley isn’t in the mood to defend or condemn. Things aren’t as simple as “Margot doesn’t sleep with Daniel and is a good person” or “Margot sleeps with Daniel and is a harlot.” Very few things are that simple, and Polley knows this. Sure, Margot loves Lou, but there’s almost no passion in their marriage. Every scene with Daniel is filled with erotic tension. In one scene, Daniel does some verbal foreplay for Margot, and this scene is more sexually charged than almost anything you’ll see on the big screen these days. Every scene with Lou is just a day-by-day sort of thing. Polley doesn’t make Lou out to be a naive ass either, though. It’s not his fault and there’s nothing wrong with him. He’s a lovable goof. That’s just who he is.
Basically, he’s Seth Rogen.
We wonder what happened. Was Lou passionate before, but that’s gone, or was he always like this? Did Margot marry him and think she’d get over that because she loves so many other things about him? We don’t know. Either way, after attempts to make Lou spring into action—attempts that are obvious to us but not to him—Margot succumbs to Daniel. And this surprises no one, because Daniel is a wolf in poorly designed sheep’s clothing. We know what he is trying to do every step of the way, and there are a lot of deliberate steps that he takes, but damn it all if it doesn’t work. Is he not at fault for pursuing a married woman so relentlessly? Polley doesn’t make this judgment either.
This movie will piss off a lot of people, which is exactly what Polley wants to do, I think. We’re so accustomed to a straightforward version of this story; either the wife cheats because she’s a bad person, or because her husband is a prick. Neither of these are true in Take This Waltz. Instead, we have characters with some flaws that cause problems. Sounds a bit like life, doesn’t it? Margot, namely, can be childish and flakey. She loves the shade of grass on the other side. But she isn’t a bad person, and that’s an important distinction. This brings us back to that shower scene. Although Polley is a bit ham-fisted here, the older women tell Margot that, despite the allure of new things, they too will become old things.
That doesn’t stick with Margot until way, way too late. This is where the drama really comes to a head, culminating in a perfect final scene. I typed up an analysis on all that, but it’d be unfair for me to tell you what to take away from the provocative last act. Like Polley, I’m not going to preach to you guys about what this all means in the end, or whether this decision was right or wrong. I will tell you, though, that the final scene is the perfect ending to this movie.
A lot of people hate Take This Waltz. I would link to the comments on Youtube, IMDB, and Rotten Tomatoes, but they’re depressingly moronic. The gist of the hatred is that the movie glorifies women in extramarital affairs. It doesn’t, but that’s what happens when a movie treats all of its characters like human beings. I think the director wants this controversy, because it means she’s doing her job. Take This Waltz isn’t a morality tale where this person is right, this one is wrong, and just deserts are gotten. This is a story where real people do real things and live real lives, and that’s why it’s so subversive. Women don’t have to be constructs or tropes here. They just get to be. What they are is provocative and interesting, and that’s why we watch a movie like this in the first place.
The fact that Margot and Geraldine (she, like many other parts of this movie, is worth discussing, but I’ve blabbed too long already) are nuanced human beings shouldn’t be subversive, but it is, and that’s why Take This Waltz needs to reach a large audience; the general movie-going crowd needs a system shock so that new, better standards can be made. This is the perfect film to do that, because it has a likable cast, a fascinating (and clear) story, and absolutely gorgeous scenery. It deserves to be seen so that it can maybe, even minutely, make some new standards for how women are portrayed in movies. Maybe those new standards will become old standards, but they’d be a lot better than the ones we have now.