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Michelle Williams in Take This Waltz
Michelle Williams in Take This Waltz

Take This Waltz's Sarah Polley

The actor-turned-director takes on another marriage on the rocks.


Summer heat rises in the early part of the day as a young woman (the effortlessly transparent Michelle Williams) stirs muffin batter in her kitchen. It’s a scene of quiet distraction—the mixture is churned, poured and tended to with a lost expression beside the glowing oven. Thoughtfully, the moment kicks off Take This Waltz, a daring new indie romantic drama. Williams’s part is one that writer-director Sarah Polley, herself long associated with moody, impulsive roles, could have aced.

“I’m kind of bored by myself as an actor, so the idea of spending months in an editing room looking at myself would have been a personal hell,” the 33-year-old Polley demurs, laughing. Calling from her home in Toronto (where Take This Waltz was vividly filmed), Polley owns up to what’s become her signature theme behind the camera.

“I’ve had tons of other ideas, but the ones I end up making are always about relationships under siege,” she says. In Polley’s uncommonly confident 2006 feature debut, Away from Her (which scored Oscar nominations for star Julie Christie and Polley’s screenplay, adapted from an Alice Munro short story), the specter was a dawning case of Alzheimer’s separating a long-wed couple. Her prior short films were all breakup dramas. “It’s a mystery to me, this constant returning to the same ground and creatively working it out,” she adds. “Is it something ancient, or something from childhood that I don’t actually understand yet? Before I even knew the new one was going to be about relationships, I knew it would be about that feeling of emptiness—how we try to fill it, how we consistently fail.” Polley lets her thoughts hang, not so much cryptically as honestly searching.

An unexpected magnet for tense postscreening discussions at the Toronto and Tribeca Film Festivals, Take This Waltz charts the slow dissolution of a too-cozy five-year marriage, between Williams’s Margot and her cookbook-writing husband, Lou (Seth Rogen, in a subtle, career-flipping performance). Entering into their local orbit is Daniel (Luke Kirby), an attractive artist and their across-the-street neighbor, who spurs Margot to explore a dissatisfaction that’s already brewing. (Polley, herself divorced in 2008 and now remarried, is quick to disavow the autobiographical angle, saying she wrote the script during a happy upswing.)

“Sexual restlessness is something that men and women are uncomfortable seeing in a female character—more so than they are in a male character,” Polley contends, still mystified by “violent” audience reactions to Margot’s straying. “Some people love the character and are really defensive of her. But the people who judge Margot are the same people who love Don Draper."

Take This Waltz, in its unusual emphasis on awkward or dodged moments of intimacy—in one scene, Williams and Rogen go from a near kiss to a bro-to-bro handshake—has Polley pushing her audience to face rarely explored marital fissures. “In every relationship I’ve ever had, there have been really embarrassing, ugly bits of behavior that I would never want near a film,” she says. (Her stars improvised their own moves.) “But these patterns emerge and they feel so lovely, yet they’re also a death knell."

You sense Polley wouldn’t have it any other way: Though she’s best known as the zombie-slaying heroine of 2004’s commercially savvy remake of Dawn of the Dead, the filmmaking Sarah Polley hews closer to the confrontational nature of her Canadian colleague Atom Egoyan, for whom she acted in Exotica (1994) and, unforgettably, The Sweet Hereafter (1997). In 1999—Polley’s breakthrough year with Go—she also worked on David Cronenberg’s squirmy eXistenZ and rejected the plum part of Penny Lane in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous.

“It’s pretty fun to do a popcorn movie every now and then, but I wouldn’t want to spend my life doing them,” Polley admits. “Every five years is a sweet rhythm to do something ridiculous and bloated—you know, a big, fat American movie!” For pleasure, Polley says she mostly watches independent films, even though she tries not to be too precious about it. (She cops to seeing “a lot of on-demand stuff” while breast-feeding; a baby was born five months ago.)

“I’m actually not that broody a person,” Polley insists, aware of her reputation. “There was a long time where I wasn’t comfortable unless I was playing somebody damaged.” The shift in attitude came with her own directing career, one that’s allowed her to tap into an enviable pool of resources. “Atom is somebody I’ll lean on until he gets sick of me. And Wim Wenders has been supergenerous: I ran into him at the Toronto Film Festival and he reassured me: ‘Don’t you get it? We’re still not ready for Madame Bovary.’ ”

Take This Waltz opens Fri 29.

Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf

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