One sweltering summer in Toronto, the tiny West End street that She Does The City calls home became the set of a new film garnering a lot of buzz. Starring Seth Rogen and Michelle Williams, people were talking about Sarah Polley’s follow up to Away From Her before the camera crews moved in down the block. We watched a rickshaw make its way up and down the pavement all summer long, wondering what Polley had up her sleeve.
A few years later, she sits in a sun-filled room at the Gladstone Hotel, talking about her experience shooting Take This Waltz. “I feel like I’m totally in love with the city in a fairly unhealthy, unrealistic way,” says Sarah Polley. We couldn’t agree more.
That love is evident as Polley recalls the first day of shooting for her new film. It was sunrise in Kensington Market, and the entire crew was perfectly silent. Just as Polley was about to say “Action,” three drunk women stumbled out of an alleyway. Noticing the film crew, they laughed, teetered towards the camera, and one of them pulled out their penis. “There’s this amazing moment, where the crew was totally silent, and then somberly applauded,” Polley says, grinning. “And someone just went, ‘That’s it, this shoot’s charmed.”
Charm is a word that easily applies to moments of Polley’s sophomore film. But despite its candy-coloured palette, Take This Waltz is a weighty examination of lust, longing, and unravelling love. The film centers on a powerhouse performance from Michelle Williams, who plays Margot, a writer who meets a magnetic stranger named Daniel while on assignment for Parks Canada. They share a cab, and core-shaking chemistry, home from the airport. When they reach Margot’s house, two things are revealed: She’s married, and Daniel lives across the street.
Take This Waltz is a painfully honest portrayal of two relationships as they collide in one person. As in real life, nothing is simple. “I think it’s difficult portraying this marriage on screen where there’s no hero, no villain,” says Polley. Margot’s marriage to Lou, played by Seth Rogen, is sweet and comfortable. Polley had Rogen in mind from the beginning of her writing and casting process. “He really grounded the search for me and anchored it.” He plays the part well: a man who is painfully aware of the creeping discontent invading his happy marriage, but unable or unwilling to process it. Polley says she’s never met someone as comfortable in their own skin as Rogen. “I sort of aspire to be like that, five lives from now.” She also cast another performer she admires, to add both comic relief and dark perspective to the film: Sarah Silverman plays Lou’s recovering alcoholic sister, a close friend to Margot.
While Margot loves Lou, and his family, Polley deftly illustrates the subtle ways in which their relationship is not working. Margot’s growing pains are most evident in the physical interactions she has with her husband, and their contrast to her encounters with Daniel. “What’s interesting to me is how some people really empathize with her, and get her, and get her sexual restlessness. When people judge her, they judge her harshly,” Polley says. “But we all love Don Draper. And I just find that totally fascinating in terms of what we expect along the gender line. We find it in our hearts to love Don Draper even though he’s constantly lying to and cheating on his wife, but if a woman expresses sexual restlessness within the context of a marriage, we still really balk at that.” At no point in the movie is Margot more in control of her sexuality than during an erotic scene in a restaurant, where she asks Daniel to describe what he would do to her, if he could. But Williams’s portrayal of Margot is most intoxicating when she’s on her own: hurtling through the dark on the Scrambler (OMG THE SCRAMBLER!) at Centre Island, or leaning against an oven in her hot kitchen.
Polley manages to create a love triangle that has inspired a mixture of strong reactions. She says audiences have championed, and blamed, each of the characters in the movie. “I found that kind of a shock. I didn’t exactly make a Lars Von Trier movie,” she says. “I find it fascinating that something so subtle speaks to people’s own personal experiences in relationships in such a jagged way."
But along with the jagged comes the seductive, and even as we ache for Margot and Lou, we long for Daniel. The romance between Margot and her neighbour is set against a halcyon backdrop of a city in technicolour. Polley says the aesthetic is designed to reflect the beginning of lust. “I wanted it to feel like almost an assault of colour. I wanted it to feel like a little too much at times. You know, when you first fall in love, you kind of can’t sleep, and you actually kind of feel sick all the time. If you actually were to really look at it without nostalgia, it was probably the worst time of your life, on paper. So I kind of wanted it to be delicious to look at, and exciting to look at, but also a little bit exhausting.” I enjoyed falling in love with the city all over again through Sarah Polley’s lens.
~ Haley Cullingham