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Comforting Vacuums | The Nation

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Comforting Vacuums

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Sarah Polley and Michael Polley in Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley and Michael Polley in Stories We Tell

In part because she trusts her actors and Munro’s words so completely, Polley often turns her attention toward the details of the couple’s home, almost as if she’s wondering what could destroy such cozy serenity; it is important to Away From Her that we witness this disease eating away at the sturdiest possible image of domestic happiness. At the same time, Polley is attuned to the slightest flicker of disorientation even among familiar objects. The film knows that houses are only conditionally and precariously invested with a sense of “home.” Away From Her insists that viewers feel the difference between the couple’s lived-in pocket of contentment and the cheerless, antiseptic drabness of Meadowlake, the assisted-living facility where Fiona—in defiance of her husband’s wishful thinking—opts to move for better medical care. The movie tracks the horror of relocation; as far as Grant is concerned, once his wife has settled into her new environment, she is lost to him.

Devoid of emotional grandstanding, Away From Her could be described as understated, yet the film’s resounding subject is the form of exquisite torture available only to the intimate. Early scenes testify to the private language of mutual respect forged through several decades’ worth of struggle, yet many of Grant and Fiona’s subsequent encounters are subtly barbed, marked by cruel jokes and petty acts of retribution. When Grant tells the story of how they fell in love, he remarks on a mind both “direct and vague, sweet and ironic.” As a result, it’s hard to know how seriously to take Fiona when she insists, staring straight ahead: “I think people are too demanding; they want to be in love every single day. What a liability.” Grant, in turn, is afraid to wonder aloud how much of Fiona’s memory loss, and her subsequent intimacy with a Meadowlake resident (Michael Murphy), is an ironic performance of pent-up spite. And what would it mean for Grant to interpret it as such: just deserts? The film’s flinty gloom suggests that the providing of care is often distinguished by a pragmatic ruthlessness.

If Away From Her arrived in Polley’s hands as a ready-made heartbreaker, it’s much harder to account for the tremendous affective charge of her sophomore effort. The lack of narrative ballast is immediately apparent in the opening minutes of Take This Waltz, the 2012 film Polley directed from her first original screenplay. The introduction of its restless twentysomething protagonist and her impossibly handsome paramour-in-waiting is so contrived, so cloying and so awkwardly staged that I had to keep looking away. A Parks Department copywriter visiting a heritage site in Nova Scotia, Margot (Michelle Williams) is forced by a historical re-enactment squad to pantomime flogging an “adulterer,” and the man with whom she’ll soon commit the sin (and whom she’s never previously met) stands on the sidelines, egging her on. After she stares meaningfully out to sea, taking notes in longhand, she next appears while being pushed toward her airport terminal in a wheelchair. She’s soon tasked with justifying her temporary paralysis to Daniel (Luke Kirby), the man in question, who is conveniently seated in her row on the plane. “I’m afraid of connections…in airports,” she admits, inexplicably nursing a glass of milk. “I don’t like being in between things.” Daniel and Margot exit the Toronto terminal in slow motion to the strains of some saccharine electro-folk, and after a shared cab ride in which they pass the time by blowing a necklace back and forth (really), they realize that they’re neighbors. “I’m married,” Margot finally announces, mercifully puncturing the drippiest meet-cute in movie history.

Somehow, just as the movie threatens to collapse under the weight of its own whimsy, it settles into a more naturalistic mode. For the remainder of Take This Waltz, Margot will waver between the easy intimacy of her apron-clad chef husband, Lou (Seth Rogen, perfectly cast as a subtler, more emotionally resonant version of his usual slacker shlub), and the lusty smolder of the rickshaw driver across the street. The situation is hardly terra incognita, but Polley follows through on her heroine’s decision with such sensitivity and stark honesty that skepticism can hardly gain traction. Rather than getting by on smarts, the movie harnesses the viewer’s investment in a universal predicament and then earns its emotional force through a refusal to trivialize the needs of a single character.

Take This Waltz always seems on the verge of falling apart, seesawing from the inexplicably nutty to the brutally frank. For reasons the screenplay leaves unexplained, Margot and her sister-in-law (comedian Sarah Silverman, playing against type) take a water aerobics class with a group of much older women, and at one point Margot accidentally and very visibly pees in the pool. One scene later, the two women are in the showers, and Polley cuts back and forth from their naked bodies to the wide variety of older, equally naked bodies across the room, noting an unkind set of contrasts and gesturing to her irresolute protagonist that, in matters of the flesh, time is always of the essence.

New Yorker critic Richard Brody called Take This Waltz “vehemently pseudo-Nietzschean” and chided Polley for her putative suggestion that conventionally beautiful bodies belong together. But the film doesn’t endorse Margot’s impulsive decision to jettison her less attractive life mate: the final shot—an exhilarating moment of lyric melancholy set to the Buggles’ disposable ’80s anthem “Video Killed the Radio Star”—leaves Margot in a state of suspended animation, having escaped one comforting vacuum only to find herself in another.

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