There they stand in the locker room showers. Naked, obviously. One of them, Margot (Michelle Williams), has just caused a water aerobics class to be cut short after a giggle fit made her pee in the pool. Another of them, Geraldine (Sarah Silverman), is shaving her legs while making references to her diminishing sex life in a barely-veiled attempt to get her sister-in-law to realize that she's too old to be acting like a schoolgirl, going to pieces whenever a cute guy gives her some attention. "Sometimes I just want something new," a third woman says, as if reading Margot's mind. "New things get old," chimes in another woman from across the room, and she has the wrinkles and flab to prove it.
In a scene that's just a few minutes long, director Sarah Polley repeatedly contrasts the lean and perky younger bodies on one side of the shower with the overweight and sagging older bodies on the other, bluntly visualizing one of her film's core themes: nothing lasts forever. It is by far the most daring scene in Take This Waltz, and it's certainly the nudest, but it isn't the most revealing. Not by a long shot. Because far more explicit than Polley's cinematography is her screenplay, in which characters repeatedly engage in full-frontal displays of emotion that leave nothing to the imagination.
The soul bearing begins almost immediately. In the movie's second substantive scene, Margot finds herself seated on a plane next to a guy she briefly encountered on the street a day earlier. Luke Kirby's Daniel is an inquisitive type and so he begins peppering Margot with questions, most of them having to do with why she boarded the plane on a wheelchair a day after he saw her walking around. Margot tries to avoid the subject at first, but after Daniel calls bullshit on her flimsy cover story she breaks down and gives him the whole truth: she gets wheelchair assistance at airports because she has a fear of missing connections. You'd think the flight from Nova Scotia to Toronto would be direct, but that's not the point. Even if your Blatant Metaphor Detector isn't going off already, it might explode when Margot says: "I don't like being in between things."
For a movie that's about a woman torn between a wifely commitment to her chicken-cooking husband (Seth Rogen's Lou) and a newfound passion for this other white meat, Margot's admission drops like one of Hans Zimmer's now legendary BRRRRAAAWWWWMMMs from 2010's Inception, which is appropriate, actually, because Polley's characters are always double-underlining the inner workings of their emotions the same way that Christopher Nolan characters tend to emphatically articulate the mechanics of the plot. "I'm afraid of being afraid," Margot tells Daniel, continuing the same conversation, parting the legs to her psyche like the sentimental equivalent of Catharine Tramell. "That sounds like the most dangerous thing in the world," Daniel responds comfortingly, no doubt thinking exactly what Michael Douglas' Nick Curran thought in that Basic Instinct interrogation room 20 years ago: "I'm gonna hit that!"
Daniel, who happens to live across the street from Margot, pulls a rickshaw through their stylish Toronto neighborhood by day and paints by night (of course he does!), but his true talent is coupling creepy confidence with fashionable vulnerability. "Do you show your stuff?" Margot asks when she first visits Daniel's art-littered home. He doesn't. Why? "Because I'm a coward," he insists. Sure he is. The kind of coward who all but dares Margot to have an affair the first time he meets her. The kind of coward who, upon Margot's request, sits across from her at a restaurant and describes at length, and in explicit detail, all the things he'd like to do to her. The kind of coward who sits by himself in the bleachers of the public pool munching on chips while watching Margot's water aerobics class. That kind of coward, which is no coward at all.
In what might be the low point of Polley's scripted explicitness, Daniel, who has already painted an interpretive split-bodied portrait of Margot that they analyze together lest the symbolism escape us ("Maybe half isn't living up to her full potential ..."), makes this observation: "You seem restless. Not just now. Like, in a permanent way." To which Margot responds with a profound, seemingly ready-made babysitting story that somehow or another gets here: "Sometimes a shaft of sunlight falls across the pavement in a certain way and I want to cry."
Yeesh. Even Terrence Malick would be embarrassed by the homespun poetry of that line. And yet, Michelle Williams is so genuine, so heartfelt that some of this stuff almost works.
What a talent she is! Over a relatively short career, Williams has played glamorous and shabby women, bubbly and depressed women, attention-grabbing and overlooked women, but Margot presents an interesting challenge precisely because Polley's screenplay often tries to do Williams' work for her. In response, Williams takes Polley's hyper-aware, melodramatic verse and funnels it through an exterior so modest that we never confuse Margot for a movie star, even though she talks like one. I'm not sure it's worth seeing the movie to see the performance, but the performance makes the movie watchable.
The other performances are hit-and-miss. Rogen is the perfect pick to play the super sweet husband who feels like he married beyond his potential and hopes that his wife never notices, and yet certain scenes are beyond his grasp: during a montage in which Polley shows only Lou's side of an argument it's clear that the hand covering Lou's face isn't concealing tears but lack thereof. Meanwhile, Silverman does well with Geraldine's outbursts of edgy, confrontational banter (little surprise there), but she isn't the least bit convincing in her final appearance, when the story requires Silverman to go to a place even more vulnerable than the aforementioned shower scene.
Which reminds me: If it wasn't obvious, the shower scene is a perfect example of a time that Polley the director should have silenced Polley the writer, nixing the verbal commentary that the cinematography makes redundant. As it turns out, the best scenes in Polley's follow-up to 2002's Away From Her are set to The Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star" and Leonard Cohen's "Take This Waltz" — scenes in which no one is talking.
Some of that is mere coincidence, but this part isn't: Take This Waltz is never more compelling than when it ends, because for the first time we can't be entirely sure what Margot is feeling.