Film Carew

21 June 2012 | 2:35 pm | Anthony Carew

Take This Waltz shows, in no uncertain terms, that Sarah Polley’s a horrendous penman.

The terrible writing starts early in Take This Waltz. Once the credits have rolled, and we've seen a frowny-faced Michelle Williams in pale-blue nailpolish (she's indie!) lean against a hot oven, she's suddenly spirited away to a low-rent Ye Olde Theme Park in Québec, trapped amongst gawping tourists, staring at a pantomimed public punishment in which —facepalm in less than five minutes— the guilty party wears an 'adulterer' sign hanging around their neck.

And on it continues: in the next scene, Williams admits she has a phobia of being transferred in airports from one flight to another... that's right: she has a 'fear of connections'. This written tone —overwrought, almost comically dimwitted— persists throughout Sarah Polley's second feature as director, but first as writer. Take This Waltz shows, in no uncertain terms, that Polley's a horrendous penman: this study of adultery managing to misjudge nearly every instant in its hideously-lengthy screentime. And never moreso than with its erotic foil, the mystically-fated 'other' who blows into a life grown cozy with chubby hubby Seth Rogen (oh, wait, another piece of embarrassingly-bad symbolism: Rogen cooks chicken for every single meal). Our other dude (played by some genuinely unattractive denizen of Canadian television) is, without doubt, one of the creepiest stalkers in the history of cinema; Polley seeming somehow oblivious to the fact that she's scribbled a lustful love-interest with shades of Al Pacino in Cape Fear. It starts out when Williams is watching the flogged adulterer in a rural tourist hamlet in Québec: Mr. Omnipresent is there! Then she goes to the airport: there he is! She gets on the plane: he's sitting next to her! Time for a cab ride home: he lives on the same street as her! When she's at her desk trying to work (the one time that happens, PS (and, yes, double parentheses, I have a lot to say on the subject of their homes and work, soon)): he's on the street, peepin' through the window! When she leaves the house and starts walking down the street: suddenly he materialises behind her! Look out, sweet Jen Lindley, he's coming to get you! Amazingly, in one of the scenes that suggests this is, in fact, an erotic frisson, and not a cue to call the cops, our creepy-ass stalker follows our heroine from her house, down the street, onto the streetcar, and into a deserted swimming pool at night, forever looming in the background, peering over her shoulder, never saying a word. The lit-up, somehow-empty cement pond is posed a place of romantic fantasy, but to me it was filled with terror: when our Manic Pixie Sad Housewife dives into the water only to reveal that her would-be paramour is on the other side of the pool, the terror is fever-pitch: suddenly our lead is near-naked and out of her element (like, literally) in front of the guy who spends his tailing her every move. Get out!, I screamed, whilst the Great Melbourne Earthquake made the whole cinema shake like my trembling, terror-stuck hands, Get out of the pool! Alas, she does not, and they cavort underwater like luxuriant dolphins, whilst another mopey pop-song from a Canadian drones on interminably.

The costly sync-licensing bills —Leonard Cohen (yes, Take This Waltz is trotted out, in a 'virtuoso' music-video composite shot that I loathed every second of), Feist, Jason Collett, etc— all show a film posing as 'indie' that is anything but; Polley dressing her dreadful, quirk-addled schmaltz in a dated take on la via bohème that somehow assumes that people who don't seem to work anytime ever —she a writer who doesn't write, he a painter who doesn't paint (and, instead, runs a rickshaw for the five minutes in a day where he isn't peering through her windows)— can afford renovated terraces in Little Portugal; this a magical, eternal-summer fantasyworld in which gentrification has yet to happen. There are a million more moments of 'truthful' and/or 'alt' writing that feel forced, superficial, silly, and hyper-theatrical: an all-in ladies-in-the-shower scene in which the combined bushes of Williams, Sarah Silverman, and countless geriatric ladies are worn as badges of artistic mettle, for one; or, well, pretty much any time a character opens their mouth and says anything (there never a moment here that resembles human conversation, save maybe for a bit where Seth Rogen says “I'm just cooking fucking chicken”).

It's so mind-alteringly bad that, bored, I started rationalising its shitness: maybe the love-interest is supposed to be creepy, as some commentary on the fact that a housewife would take any iota of attention from any interested party and cling to it? Of course, that idea would only play if she wasn't 28 and ridiculously-hot and in a largely-happy marriage with a loving, sweethearted husband who doesn't seem to mind that she doesn't do anything with her days and occasionally vanishes for like 16 hours without so much as a text back home. The supposed torments of our heroine never register, be they the torments of the person-in-a-comfortable-relationship, or they the torments of someone-weighing-up-whether-to-have-an-affair. Williams is one of the great actors in the world, but here she gets shit-all to work with, and is halfway to insufferable; pouting in a parade of vintage frocks, or laughing/crying wildly as the script's adolescent scribbles sadly dictate. I can't imagine a single soul watching the film and feeling for this fictitious fräulein; especially in a climate where people are so apt to dismiss the woes of white people, of the wealthy, and of women.

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There's an apt comparison to be made: another film in which an aimless, drifting, married-to-a-bit-of-a-duffer 20-something dame bumps into an unlikely foil and finds herself spending days with him, drawing closer, maybe even falling in love; another film in which profundity is undercut by shitty scenes of comic relief, and which the woes are the woes of idle affluenza. It's Lost In Translation, a comparison that grows all the more salty when you think of how comparable Polley and Sofia Coppola are: each connected members of showbiz families who leveraged their privilege into careers behind the camera; they two of the few young women who've been allowed to make feature films anywhere, ever. It's a comparison that only makes Polley, and Take This Waltz, look, somehow, even worse: Coppola is a real filmmaker whose cinematic composition is clean, considered, and meticulous; Polley is a shitty hack whose tin-eared writing is only exceeded by an obsession with eye-gauging color grading. In short: when your film can't even be redeemed by Sarah Silverman's pubic hair, you know it's truly, mystically shitty.

Marley is a twin study: in the life and times of reggae legend Bob Marley, and in cinematic mediocrity. Kevin Macdonald has made a career out of flopping between popcorn pictures (The Eagle, State Of Play) and documentaries that play like popcorn pictures (One Day In September, Touching The Void, Life In A Day); his latter work finding interesting subjects (like, in My Enemy's Enemy, Klaus Barbie) and depicting them in overheated, hero-flattering, subject-flattening formats. So it goes with Marley, which, for all its family-granted access and careful plotting of the singer's life, lacks the moments of transgression, inspiration, or insight to push it beyond the functional. It's perfunctory stuff for casual listeners who know nothing of Marley's life and/or have never thought of its socio-politico ramifications, and sure to be overpraised way above its artistic station.

A Royal Affair is a frock-movie plain and simple: looking handsome and lavish, set amongst splendour both natural and set-based, and featuring humans in fancy costumes acting out royal scandals from the 18th century. There's enough salaciousness —Adultery! Craziness! Revolution!— to make it play as bodice-ripper, but Nikolaj Arcel's expensively-appointed picture obviously harbours pretensions to greatness. Well, that's if you equate awards-show nominations with greatness.

Elena comes much closer to actual greatness: Andrei Zvyagintsev finally, eight years on, making a worthy follow-up to his biblically-weighty father/son drama The Return. Here, a domestic thriller —a wealthy husband denies his new wife (and titular character) money to bribe away her shithead grandson's imminent military service, she starts to get panicky— unfolds with Hitchcockian élan: Philip Glass score deftly used, no piece of dialogue extraneous, no frame wasted. Elena evokes the noir-film's descent, but in a cold, business-like way; the fiery passions of the '50s/'60s replaced by the aching ennui of the new millennium. Here, even desperation is turned into a transaction. It's all, of course, a profound commentary on hyper-capitalist modern Russia: with class divisions, generation gaps, and ghettoised neighbourhoods all in play, and the television always on in the background. What sets Elena apart is Zvyagintsev's unquestioned cinematic skills: the way whole story lines play out unspoken, the way resonant symbols are shown but never explained, and the way his film has no interest in the empty moralising of so much modern movie-making.