It’s the season of chaotic sensations and somber reflections. “Take This Waltz” feels so right at this time of year, if only to remind us of one of life’s basic facts: What starts off as something new and shiny will eventually get old and rusty. A bowl of peaches left on the table is already speeding toward decay, just as a summer love affair will bloom wildly in the sun only to wither and brown when the cold winds blow. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that nothing “grew stale so soon as pleasure,” and that probably goes double for the pleasures reaped in summertime.
“Take This Waltz” is languid and sensual, driven by a summer passion that moves along in fits and spurts like the engine on some retro automobile. And it all unfolds under an azure Toronto sky, Leonard Cohen crooning the title song in the background. There are scenes of front porches and wicker chairs; of communal shower stalls and a nighttime swimming pool; of feverish kissing and gentle hugging and holding hands under a bar table. Let me say at this point that I hope you have your cut-off denim shorts handy, because after this you will feel a monstrous need to change into them.
The filmmaker/writer is Canadian actress Sarah Polley (“My Life Without Me,” “The Secret Life of Words”) and this is her second feature behind the camera. As with her previous and brilliant Oscar-nominated “Away From Her” in 2006, the film is an ode to Canada in terms of backdrop, the nod to Cohen and Polley’s own, intimate knowledge of Toronto suburbia-scapes.
Polley is probably the most exciting woman in cinema today. As an actress she has worked with such diverse directors as Isabel Coixet (“The Secret Life of Words”) and Jaco Van Dormael (“Mr. Nobody”) to give performances that are at once fantastically expressive and extremely reticent. “Away From Her” — based on a novel by fellow Canadian Alice Munro — demonstrated her formidable powers of observation and her huge capacity for compassion.
“Take This Waltz” is her own script, and the dialogue feels more familiar and relaxed than its predecessor. Each film is the story of a married couple coming to a crossroads in their relationship, but whereas “Away From Her” had dealt with Alzheimer’s ripping apart a 40-year marriage, “Take This Waltz” focuses on a young Toronto couple who tied the knot only five years earlier and are still very much in love … sort of.
Margot’s (Michelle Williams, whose face recalls a freshly baked cinnamon roll but in a wholly wonderful way) and Lou’s (Seth Rogen, in a serious, romantic role for once) deep contentment with each other has paradoxically bred the seeds of discontent, mostly in Margot. She talks baby talk to her husband and they pull childish pranks on each other, but when they go out to a restaurant, neither has a word to say.
On a plane ride back from Nova Scotia (Margot works for a company that publishes travel brochures), she gets talking with a handsome stranger in the next seat. They share a cab ride into town, and discover they actually live across the street from each other. By the time they get there, Margot and Daniel (Luke Kirby) have been flirting outrageously and find it hard to part.
“I’m married,” she confesses — in the wrenching, pitiful tone of a 19th-century courtesan saying she has syphilis. “That’s too bad,” he replies, with the agonized face of a Depression-era farmer whose wheat crop has been destroyed by locusts. The moment is so electric it could probably power up a few air-conditioning units.
Soon, Lou and Margot run into Daniel on the street, and he offers them a ride on his rickshaw. (Yes, that’s what he does for a living, and apparently it pays the bills and the rent for his cute but spacious apartment.) Electric moment No. 2: Margot getting in next to her rather chunky husband as the wiry Daniel picks up the bar and starts running. In a matter of seconds, his back is drenched with sweat and his hair is flowing in the breeze. Margot sits there, mesmerized by the display of masculinity. Her husband, by the way, is a cookbook author whose current project is related to chicken.
You can see where all this is going, way before Margot and Daniel meet over martinis and she says to him breathlessly, “I want to know what you’d do to me.” Daniel then proceeds to tell her, move by move, just what his plans are. Electric moment No. 3.
In many ways this is the cutoff point. Whatever pleasures may assail later, they somehow never get better than this. After that, summer wanes, and it’s time to put those denim shorts back in the drawer.