Take This Waltz is full of chance encounters, some less likely than a lobby with nine hundred windows or a bed where the moon has been sweating. Following a meet uncute at Nova Scotia’s Fortress of Louisbourg, Daniel (Luke Kirby) catches the perfectly abled Margot (Michelle Williams) at the airport being hauled around on a wheelchair. Seated, of course, beside her on the plane, and bound for the same Toronto street, imagine that, he calls bullshit on her claim that her legs fail her after standing upright for a few minutes, so she confesses to having problems making connections. She means layovers, yes, but writer-director Sarah Polley means, well, you know what she means, and you gather that Daniel gets the script’s subtextual drift, but because he makes money dragging a rickshaw around in order to support making art he’s too chicken-shit to bring to a gallery space, he’s practically a paraplegic, so he teases his way into the woman’s heart with super-chill abandon.
Note: If the thought of any of the above threatened to bring up your last meal, wait ’til you catch a whiff of Polley’s vision of Toronto. I know absolutely nothing about the city’s housing market, or poultry’s price per pound at Canadian supermarkets, but Polley’s boho characters live so unbelievably beyond their means—Margot is a would-be writer who doesn’t seem to actually write, and her husband, Lou (Seth Rogen), spends all day bringing chicken-centered recipes to delicious life for a cookbook he’s writing—that it’s impossible not to look at Take This Waltz as anything other than fantasy. This is confirmed by everyone’s colorful living spaces, a self-consciously overthought sense of how the hip and down and out live that feels sprung from the imagination of Juno MacGuff herself.
Because looking at Take This Waltz isn’t unlike walking through an arts and crafts store, it’s tempting to cut Polley some slack for whipping up a story whose every conceit is so obviously constructed. Every detail is contrived to signify something, if not in the present then later: from Daniel owning a rickshaw to Lou’s daily ritual of pouring cold water over Margot’s head as she showers. Five years living together and she’s never looked up, eyes open, as the second stream of water cascades over her head, so she thinks there’s something wrong with the plumbing (a plumber, natch, has never been called). The logic of the scene is blatantly screwy but ultimately beside the point, as the scene doesn’t exist to make sense, only for cheap sentiment’s sake—for Lou, once Margot has decided to leave him, to make her feel lousy for downplaying their relationship’s element of surprise.
And yet, the film works in spite of all its cute writerly and aesthetic doodling. Maybe that’s to be expected from a patchwork, as some of its panels have been labored over with more thoughtfulness than others, such as a trip to the amusement park by Margot and Daniel during which the would-be lovers ride a spinning attraction and “Video Killed the Radio Star” jarringly drops from the soundtrack; the scene, like the song, is a melancholically playful articulation of the joy and fear of transition. And, yes, Daniel may own a rickshaw just so we can have the scene in which he pulls Margot and Lou to the movies, on their anniversary no less, but the staging of the scene, in which Margot, sitting next to a giddy Lou, is forced to look at Daniel’s back for the entirety of the ride, his shirt soaking up sweat, is gorgeously framed, the emotional fraughtness of everyone’s proximity to one another made credible by Williams’s customary level of nuance.
But the film’s triumph is a candid scene where Polley lingers on Margot as she and a group of women shower following a self-defense class at the local pool. The naked female body, young and old, firm and saggy, is displayed for us without provocation, and at length, to simply convey the waltz of growing old without shame. It may seem random, but the scene, in no small part because of Williams’s expressiveness, oddly and mysteriously connects to Margot’s struggle to be with Daniel, as if the captivating parade of female nakedness somehow her gives her the license to leave Lou and mature into a new relationship.
Throughout the film, obscenely cute scenes from Margot and Lou’s playful but seemingly sexless five-year marriage are contrasted with a series of adorably scorching, will-they-or-won’t-they exchanges between Margot and Daniel, which reaches a turning point at the local pool when Daniel oversteps his bounds by grabbing Margot’s leg. Their eventual and quite libertine romantic relationship will be absurdly conveyed in a single montage sequence, scored to the great song from which the film derives its title, and though Margot’s story will culminate with a too-symbolic expression of the independence she achieves, it’s the image of the women showering naked that truly lingers in the mind as a poetic expression of a girl learning to be herself, and on her own, without regret.