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Some Hallways Where Love’s Never Been

Last night, I finally got around to seeing the new Sarah Polley film, “Take This Waltz,” so I can now respond to Scott McConnell’s very flattering post of a month ago, asking me what I made of it. First of all, I went into the film predisposed to like it. I was very impressed by […]

Last night, I finally got around to seeing the new Sarah Polley film, “Take This Waltz,” so I can now respond to Scott McConnell’s very flattering post of a month ago, asking me what I made of it.

First of all, I went into the film predisposed to like it. I was very impressed by Polley’s debut feature; I think Michelle Williams is probably the most impressive American screen actress of her generation;

I’m of the opinion that Seth Rogen is better playin
g a funny person than he is in straight comedy; and the film is stocked with

Canadian actors I know from my favorite television show and/or my favorite theatre festival.

The movie has some structural problems – mostly, that it’s so slow in the middle – but on the whole it didn’t disappoint. Williams and Rogen do excellent work. Luke Kirby does a very convincing job as the third corner of the triangle. And the film is beautiful, visually; Toronto really shines playing itself for a change.

I agree with McConnell that it’s not “Blue Valentine” – it’s not nearly as tight, for one thing. But it’s also not really trying to be the same kind of movie. “Take This Waltz” stays very close to the Williams character’s consciousness, where “Blue Valentine” was much more objective. “Take This Waltz” has really no interest at all in the economic realities of its characters’ lives – there is no way any of these characters could remotely afford to live like they do – whereas “Blue Valentine” was acutely attentive to those realities. Even the relationship of the characters to alcohol is different.

But the biggest difference is that the two Michelle Williams characters are very nearly opposites. Michelle Williams’s character in “Blue Valentine” is not especially likable, but (as I tried to argue in my post on that film) she’s the grownup. While Gosling’s character is on the surface more likable, he’s childish in fundamental ways that make it impossible for Williams to remain in love with him. She married him out of gratitude, really, and that’s no firm foundation for love – and then even that curdled as she realized she hadn’t found someone who would protect her and her child, but another child she had to mother.

In “Take This Waltz,” Williams is the character who hasn’t grown up. Her work amounts to treading water; she doesn’t care about it, and appears to barely engage in it. Her conversations with her husband consist largely of baby talk. Her flirting with Kirby is also dominated by childlike behaviors – they blow a string back and forth between them in a taxicab; they go on a tilt-a-whirl-like ride at an amusement park. Rather than actually start an affair, she’s playing at the idea of adultery. When she finally gives in to her desires, and runs after the Kirby character, we see a montage of wild, ecstatic sex giving way, over months, to tranquil domesticity painstakingly reminiscent of her life with the Rogen character. And how does the montage end? She leans on Kirby’s shoulder and says, “I wuv you.” In the same baby-talk voice she used to use with Rogen.

This baby stuff took its toll on her first marriage, because, among other things, it isn’t very sexy. There’s a moment when Williams and Rogen are wrestling on the floor, and they’re doing their usual baby thing, and Rogen suddenly kisses her. And she flinches, and says: don’t do the baby talk thing and kiss me. One or the other, but not both. Sexy and baby don’t mix. And he, frustrated – as anybody, man or woman, would be at having their foreplay directed like that (and nastily, too) – gets up and goes back to the stove, where he’s more comfortable. This is the only way they can talk, and now that talk has killed their sex life.

It also gets in the way of what McConnell sees rightly as the logical next step for this couple, namely to have children. He sees the Rogen character’s lack of interest in children as odd, out of character. I disagree: it makes perfect sense, indeed, ties much of the movie together. Williams is his child. He doesn’t have room for another. Yeah, he’d be a fine Dad. But he is aware, whether he knows it or not, that Williams would be a terrible mother. He’s not uninterested in children – he cuts the conversation off abruptly, uncomfortable, saying, “can we not talk about this?”

I have a friend who is very much like the Rogen character, now happily married and with a child, whose first marriage ended in part because he didn’t want to have kids. Or so he said. He didn’t want to admit to himself that it wasn’t that he didn’t want kids as such – but that he didn’t want them with the woman to whom he was married. He knew something was wrong there, and that’s what made him hold back. So, too, with the Rogen character. He knows something is wrong, in his marriage, and with his wife. That something wrong is why he doesn’t want kids – with her. But he loves her. He isn’t going to leave her. He’s going to stay – and stay with everything bottled up inside, getting less and less able to actually connect with her, to even have a conversation with her.

And there’s some real rage bottled up there. Think about that recurring game Williams and Rogen play. The one where they describe how they would kill and mutilate each other. Polley didn’t give them that game by accident. He can’t have a casual conversation with her at a restaurant, but he can talk casually about raping her with scissors. As part of a recurring game. Which he’s been winning more lately, because, he guesses, now he loves her more. Yeah.

None of this is really what the movie is about. This is a movie with a moral, and the moral of the story is articulated by Sarah Silverman in the shower, repeating what an older woman in the shower has said: “new things get old.” Relationships get old. People get old. Finding something new is no solution because nothing is a solution; decay isn’t just a lousy idea – it’s the law (the Second Law of Thermodynamics, to be precise). It’s the kind of insight that might drive one to drink and – funny! – Sarah Silverman’s character is an alcoholic. But she’s not wrong. The common thread between Polley’s two feature films is the dreadful inescapability of decay, and that’s a theme that you could spend a lifetime exploring. But she tied that theme to a portrait of a particular foolish woman, and I found that portrait to be quite acutely drawn, a tribute both to Polley and to Williams.

(Postscript: McConnell also asks about the Jewish/gentile element in the story. I don’t think there would be any value to making Rogen’s family more ethnic – in fact, I think it would be a distraction. What struck me, rather, was that the Williams character has no family. None. Nor any friends. She ends her marriage and never has a conversation with anybody  about it. That profound isolation is the least-plausible thing about the movie, but it’s also necessary – because if she had told anybody, anybody that she was planning to run off with a rickshaw driver, that somebody would have slapped her upside the head. Now, I don’t know if you want to draw any conclusions about that isolation from an ethnic perspective, but at a minimum it’s probably slightly more plausible for the Williams character to have no “people” if she’s a generic white girl rather than coming from a distinct ethnic background, whether Jewish or Irish or what-have-you.)



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