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Vol. 11, No. 6, 2012
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Robert J. Lewis
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City of God
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Maria Full of Grace
Man Without a Past
In This World
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Born into Brothels
The Edukators
Big Sugar
A Long Walk
An Inconvenient Truth
Sisters In Law
Send a Bullet
Banking on Heaven
Chinese Botanist's Daugher
Ben X
La Zona
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Irina Palm
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days
Poor Boys Game
Finn's Girl
Leaving the Fold
The Mourning Forest
Beneath the Rooftops of Paris
Before Tomorrow
Paraiso Travel
Necessities of Life
For a Moment of Freedom
Blood River
By the Will of Genghis Kahn
The Concert
Weaving Girl
Into Eternity
When We Leave
Le Havre
Presumed Guilty
A Separation

Sarah Polley's

reviewed by


Take This Waltz played at Montreal's 2011 Festival du Nouveau Cinéma (FNC) film festival. For ratings and reviews, click HERE.

I can think of few English-language films that deal intelligently with the subject of adultery, fewer still that approach it temperately. It tends to dominate the dramatic action when addressed directly, becoming an idea, the idea, rather than an ingredient in the tapestry of a film’s action. When it is not addressed directly, it remains, as homosexuality in contemporary American comedies, forcefully present, perhaps more so for staying just outside the conversation. A cinema predicated on heterosexual union -- from the most serious dramas (In the Bedroom) to the slightest comedies (You’ve Got Mail) -- is always mindful of threats to that union; adultery is the most dramatically promising kind of threat.

One needn’t look far to see the schizophrenia of a culture that holds to the dream of romantic union even as the reality of divorce rates press so firmly in the opposite direction. If self-delusion on cultural-wide scale is a disease, then to break down a culture’s delusions is to disturb its sense of self, and if the extremity of its reaction is conducive to the depth of its deception, then, with respect at least to how it’s been treated in English-language cinema, there is surely something left unsaid on the topic of adultery. Between its capacities to affirm and question people’s beliefs, to comfort and disturb them, and to reflect their lives back to them and show them a life they could only vicariously fantasize about, recent films that place adultery center-stage converse with another and, in their own schizophrenic relationship to adultery, help us understand our present confusion.

For this reason, many of the more interesting films involving adultery are schizophrenic on the subject, making clear the repressions and delusions of the hetero-marriage ideal while slandering those who disturb it, alternately taking the prejudice apart and ramming it into place. If the latter tends to win out, this is because these films use adultery as the main source of tension and dramatic action, and dial its representation to a lunatic pitch; in this context, critiques of propriety or repression shrink in the face of the adulterous act, which is always a more threatening and grotesque unreality than the self-delusion of bourgeois normalcy.

In Fatal Attraction, the disruption of a happy marriage unleashes a psychosexual terror that would have been better off left in the darkness of imagination, as Glenn Close’s homicidal obsession rages through the film as pure sexuality and the same for the sickness led Michael Douglas to cheat instead of the anarchy it unleashes.

Mike Nichols’s Closer also pathologizes the adulterous drive; its four principles are junkies addicted to surfaces -- dermatologist, obituary writer, stripper, photographer -- and to getting as close as possible to people without being close at all. Their rapturous wordplay is a distancing mechanism, and the fact that they trade partners as freely and energetically as insults says their behaviour is self-destructive, the impulse of which leads them to step literally and metaphorically in front of cars.

Behind this need to pathologize the adulterous instinct is the desire to preserve not simply heterosexual union but the monogamous ideal, the notion that two people ought to stay true to one another, and that any interference in this state of affairs is a sign that something is off. Closer wages this battle in the open, where this theme of arrested development clashes with the sheer pleasure of watching a giddy whirl of words and betrayals that, after a short time, are no longer betrayals, since everyone, audience and characters included, desire them. By the end, the idea that the characters are self-destructive shrinks in the majesty of gladiatorial confrontations that herald the collapse of the film’s tenuous heterosexual unions and give life to the characters in the first place. Scene-by-scene, Closer’s narrative jumps from the beginning to the end of these relationships without wasting time in-between, interested in stability only as something to tear apart.

Other recent films that deal with adultery as a major theme can hardly contain their excitement at playing with idea of monogamy, stretching it to see how much it can take. Beyond Glenn Close’s burlesque and Closer’s partner-swapping is Eyes Wide Shut’s iniquitous nightscape, a dream world that repeatedly dangles the impossible promise of extramarital sex -- most memorably through costumed orgy in a politician’s mansion. The added layer of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s real life marriage introduces a monogamous ideal only to disturb it, suggesting an essentially performative nature at its core. It is a gesture as deliberate as the slow, repeated piano note punctuating the soundtrack, a controlled cadence barely containing the sexual hysteria beneath the film’s immaculate surface. This motif returns in Unfaithful, with Richard Gere’s face now the pristine surface of bourgeois propriety, and Olivia Martinez, all scruffy hair and hard-angled abdominals, the sharp, unkempt promise of sexual fulfillment, testified to by Diane Lane’s tortured, coital magnificence.

In Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset, married man Jesse and single woman Celine spend eighty minutes walking around Paris, captured by lengthy daylight tracking shots reminiscent of the night-time shots of Eyes Wide Shut. But where Kubrick’s night-time streets seem deep and endless, the streets of Before Sunset are known, the two characters and the audience conscience of a fast-approaching endpoint. Jesse and Celine wander between the fixed pole of monogamy on one hand and adultery on the other. Until its remarkable closing shot, Before Sunset is a time-fixed space in which the imagination of transgression can stretch itself.

An amped-up version of this effect is found in Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz, where married Margo and single artist neighbour Daniel carry their flirtation into an indoor ride that whips two-seater pods back and forth as “Video Killed the Radio Star” blasts on loudspeakers. Speed and sound overwhelm the senses as the pair whirls through darkness and bounce off one another, untouchable by conscience or the possibility of carrying their flirtation further. Then suddenly lights cut on, cab slows, and reality, in the form of an overweight employee, brings them back down to earth.

Like all the films I’ve mentioned that deal with adultery and, by extension, monogamy, Take This Waltz is a perpetual motion machine. And, as with the elements of those films associated with motion -- the tracking shots of Before Sunset and Eyes Wide Shut, the dialogue and partner-swapping of Closer -- the ride is a particularly exaggerated expression. It’s also an overplayed metaphor, as Margo rides it alone in the closing shots of the film, all the magic gone. By then, the film has joined her symbolically to her alcoholic sister-in-law, with the latter’s jarringly unreal declamation – “We’re the same!” It’s when Take This Waltz panders to this kind of ham-fisted moralizing so familiar to discussions of adultery that it stumbles, and seems untrue to its nature as a film of in-betweens, refusing to settle for easy answers.

“I don’t like being between things,” says Margo to a handsome stranger beside her on a plane. They flirt, disembark, and share a cab home, where it turns out he lives a few doors down, and so begins a flirtation that leads inevitably to the collapse of Margo’s marriage. Later, just before Daniel acts to precipitate a decision on her part (to leave or stay with her husband Lou), he replies, “I don’t think I like being between things either.” Yet neither character is as alive to the possibilities of everyday living as when they feel themselves at moments of suspension, a tendency again illustrated a bit too literally by a metaphor. Towards the middle of the film, the two meet surreptitiously at the community pool for a wordless, one-on-one swimming session, carefully manoeuvring around one another underwater. The scene proceeds without dialogue until a hand touches an ankle and the magic is broken, forcing Margo to end what, perhaps appropriately, never feels entirely real in the context of the story.

Indeed, Take This Waltz is strongest when it doesn’t bother with elaborate metaphors for its characters’ emotional states, which is not to say it has no room for unreality or imagination. Instead, its careful structure is split between the prosaic reality of married life and the whirlwind of unreality surrounding an extra-marital flirtation. But far from interweaving these strands in a seamless way, the film lives off their awkward dissonances, often following one scene of marital dialogue unnerving for its naturalism with a flirting scene with dialogue so unreal as to border on laughable. The effect is jarring but also seems appropriately off-kilter--– one is constantly trying to find one’s footing between the two narratives, and so kept in the kind of perpetual motion in which it’s difficult to form any kind of moral position. Same goes for the dissonances between characters -- Margot’s husband, a chef, is eminently definable by profession, sedentary and entirely housebound; Margot’s flirtation, Daniel, is an artist-cipher who somehow pays for his modest suburban Toronto digs as a rickshaw-driver in the mornings, is hardly ever seen indoors, and is constantly in motion. He and Margo always meet and talk on the run, and their outings – poutine in the park, ride on the mixer, synchronized swim in the pool – have the same unreal quality as their dialogue.

It’s the naturalistic quality of Margot’s married life that redresses any imbalance, an achievement made even more remarkable considering the film’s decor, which, from the pretty girl with the bangs (baking cookies in the fuzzed-out opening shots, no less), to the bright-coloured wall paper, to the charmingly gay swimming instructor in tight bathing suit, constantly flirts with the unreality of so many indie films. Yet each time the film finds a way to redeem itself. The cookies we later learn might be a last-effort to save a failing relationship and a means to evoke another relationship, in which food preparation played a major part, long since lost, the coy indie sweetness made bitter by experience. The bright-coloured house competes with the constant odour of Lou’s chicken, which, like marriage, is as pleasant and reassuring as it is redundant and predictable. And after the hilariously gay instructor makes Margo pee her bathing suit, a remarkable shower scene shows a female swim class split into two age groups, young and old showering separately. Again, a rather ham-fisted conceit is brought down to earth by the willingness to look equally at the naked bodies of young and old -- indeed, to linger over and, it seems, celebrate the bodies of the older women, one vigorously scrubbing her private parts.

The vigorous scrubbing of private parts, physical and emotional ones, comes up again as Daniel describes vividly what he would to do to Margo if he could -- “I’d fuck you harder than I meant to.” He gets his chance, too, in the film’s remarkable, if not entirely successful, coda, in which the imagined affair suddenly crystallizes. Standing before one another in an empty loft, Margo and Daniel begin making love as the camera circles them, flashing through the particular sexual and apartment-decorating stages of their relationship, ending in a static shot of the couple on the couch, watching TV. The ostensible point is that Margo has ended up in the same place as before, and the transgression of the dreamy in-between, always in motion, has given out to the static, definable world of relationship, boyfriend, girlfriend; the mixer has stopped, the ride is over.

In Polley’s first film, Away from Her, a grieving husband named Grant decides to let go of his Alzheimer-ridden wife as he embraces her in the film’s final shot, the camera circling them to evoke a sense of conciliatory wholeness. In the inverse of the famous Vertigo shot, where Jimmy Stewart has resurrected the lost Madeline (or so he thinks), Grant has given up the hope of resurrecting his wife, and is healthier for it. It occurs, as in Take This Waltz, in the bright light of day, and behind it is a moment of past adultery that Grant must now face on his own, the one thing it seemed his wife had the hardest time forgetting. “But you didn’t leave me,” she tells him, “which is more than I can say for some of your colleagues.” Margo, for her part, did leave, though she didn’t cheat, and it’s one of Waltz’s unfortunate impulses to punish her for it, attributing her behaviour to depression. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times where depression diagnoses are plentiful enough, the logical outcome of spiritually bankrupt, bourgeois yuppiedom. But despite the need to chalk up its character’s extra-marital interests to a cultural or psychological lack, the film is canny enough, by opening with a re-enactment of a centuries-old public shaming with an Adulterer as culprit, to acknowledge this punishment as a performance. Waltz hits enough proper steps to pass etiquette but, like a pair of horny teenagers testing out a dance floor, finds plenty of room to grope around.


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