Take this Waltz, an indie from the brain of writer/director Sarah Polley that premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2011 and now streams on Netflix, is a stylized, pure, simple romantic-comedy. Michelle Williams plays Margot—a seemingly happily-married woman who falls for the mysterious artist (Luke Kirby) who lives across the street. On the surface, the premise seems like nothing we haven’t heard before, just another struggling marriage dipping into the fetid waters of infidelity, but I was thrilled to discover that the film is decidedly unique in its storytelling. Most specifically, in it’s use of visual comparison.
There is very little talking in this film. When the characters do talk, it’s important and you notice it, when they don’t talk, you ask yourself why. And in a story where the lead character, Margot, is choosing between two paths—staying married to her loving best friend of a husband, Lou (Seth Rogen), of five years, or moving on to the shiny-and-new neighbor, Daniel, who is full of all the passion and mystery that her current relationship lacks, the constant comparison of how she is and how she talks to Lou alongside her interactions with Daniel is one of the major indicators of where her head is at.
Perhaps lacking the fire it assuredly did in its early days, Margot’s relationship with her husband is still full of recurring sweet and silly games that only they understand, ritualistic contentedness, and lots of his cooking (he’s writing a cookbook on chicken, and as a result, all they eat is chicken.) On the other hand, Margot’s relationship with Daniel is intriguing and new and sexy even though all they do is talk about what they might someday do. Both men are likeable, both have admirable qualities, and for the most part they’re on the same level but just on different pages with Margot. Still, the story is Margot’s. She’s the dynamic character, she’s the one who is restless, she’s the one on the verge of a major change.
“Show don’t tell.” They drill it into you in film classes, English classes, and really any “storytelling” class—make your audience understand without a long drawn out soliloquy of exposition. If they gave out Oscars for the best use of “show don’t tell,” Sarah Polley would surely be a contender. Her skill comes into play in countless places throughout the film, but nowhere else is it as captivating as it is just before the end of the film, in a lengthy tracking shot sequence circling around Margot and Daniel and their new life together after she leaves her husband.
The sequence had me scooting to the edge of my seat waiting to see what the next 360 would reveal. There is no talking, just a tracking shot circling the couple as months pass between them, and the 2-3 minute shot describes their entire life together without having to say a word. The sequence starts with an empty, beautifully spacious loft. Light beams through half-circle windows as Daniel kisses Margot for the first time on-screen in deep silhouette.
And then the camera starts moving.
It circles them once and the couple transitions to sex on the bare floor, it circles them again and now a mattress is added. With another 360, the sexcapades grow—adding another woman to the mix, adding another man, but with another turn it’s just Daniel and Margot again but with more furniture. Each time more furniture, until the end when Margo and Daniel sit side-by-side on a living room couch watching the news. They are hardly touching. They are fully clothed. Their faces are expressionless to both the program they’re watching and each other. They are content, sure, but bored. There’s a Christmas tree in the room and we see how far they’ve come. Margot breaks the silence to say, “I wuv you” in the way she once bantered with her husband. Daniel doesn’t hear or understand and she says, “I said, ‘I wuv you.’” Whereas before, Lou would mimic her tone and silliness as he said it back, making a game of it, Daniel simply whispers it in her ear so quietly we can hardly hear.
The sequence says it all; it sums up the entire movie. Margot married too young and although her marriage was comfortable and there was a common ease between them, she longed for the desire and intrigue that her current relationship lacked. But when she sought it out with Daniel, she had that passion for only a blip before the same lukewarm contentedness settled in. As Margot’s sister-in-law quipped earlier in the film, “Even the new things get old” and that’s what Margot found out the hard way. Yes, she’s happy with Daniel, but she was also happy with Lou.
In another telling scene, Margot and Daniel are brushing their teeth in the bathroom when Margot sits down on the toilet to pee. As soon as she does, Daniel leaves the room. Before, in Margot’s other life, Lou would walk in and strike up a conversation with her as she peed, completely unaffected by the private act. Margot and Lou where closer and warmer, and sure, who’s to say that Daniel and Margot won’t reach that same level of comfort in a few years, but we can’t help but see Margot question her choice. Did she give up a good thing and hurt someone deeply in exchange for the same good thing with a little less ease?
Margot longs for her old life.
She misses the chicken.
And the best part about Sarah Polley’s film is that we understand that all without Margot ever uttering a word on the subject.