16 June 2013
Look at those old photos of your parents, when they were young and trim and beautiful. Mysteries inhabit those images. Were they as happy as they appear, before the children came? Were they compatible back then? Were they self-conscious of the camera?
Sarah Polley’s brilliant film Stories We Tell doesn’t try to answer those questions. Rather, she lets her own family tell stories to the camera, stories full of wishful thinking and contradictions — all told by the charming members of her family, expert storytellers all, even if they’re a bit nervous and self-conscious before her camera.
This is the best film I’ve seen in 2013. It might be better than everything I saw in 2012, too.
Polley specifically focuses on her mother, who died from cancer when Sarah was only eleven. Diane Polley was lovely and vivacious and is captured in an almost too perfect series of super-8 home movies (later, we learn why so many of those perfect home movies exist). Diane dances through those scenes so quickly and magically that we can hardly get a glimpse of her except to feel drawn to her like moths. No wonder Sarah, blonde like her mother, is so riveted.
But those shots are intercut with interviews with her siblings and her father, Michael Polley (a British-Canadian actor I know from the wonderful series Slings & Arrows), interviews that reveal not just contradictory views of their home life but also some secrets only half lurking in Diane Polley’s history.
In fact, Sarah lets her father tell a goodly portion of this story; knowing very little about the film, I was nevertheless surprised to see it open with him in front of a microphone, reading his own prose about his wife’s brief and complicated life.
This is surprising because (and I’m not really spoiling anything here, I promise) a goodly portion of the story ultimately revolves around the question of whether Michael really is Sarah’s father.
But let me assure you, you’re not going to see this film out of prurience. Rather, it’s because ultimately 1) Sarah’s family can tell some fucking stories; 2) her family’s history has the most wonderful, literary twists and ironic turns that it’s downright better than fiction; and 3) she ultimately crafts a film that gets at something larger than the truth of her parentage.
If it sounds pretentious to say that she’s more interested in the stories we tell, let me assure you it isn’t. Maybe because I come from a family of storytellers; maybe because my academic work is preoccupied with stories; maybe because I’m fascinated by family stories in particular — for all these reasons the film entranced me. I thought simultaneously, “I’ve got to show this to my students” and, “I’ve got to show this to my family.”
But in the end, I found Sarah Polley’s own place in the film to be the most interesting. On the one hand, the story is very much about her parents. But on the other, she removes herself as an emotional character, stepping back and appearing only to show herself crafting the film, making decisions about its narrative, and asking her father to repeat a line for emphasis, or to give it a nicer reading. That restraint (modesty? honesty?) is so beautifully conveyed that it feels like a masterful work of analysis. She even allows Michael Polley to read one of the best lines (his own prose):
When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood … It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.
[Updated, 8:47 pm: Aldine reminds me that this isn’t Michael’s prose — it’s lines from the Margaret Atwood novel, Alias Grace. This is what I get when I neglect to write about a film until 2 weeks after seeing it!]
And you know in your most gut level how hard it must have been to sit in her position during the creation and telling of this story. What a smart, delicate film this is. The bar is very high.
The waltz is a vexingly difficult yet beautiful, even sexy dance.
If you imagine to yourself its thumping rhythm — that ONE two three, ONE two three pace — you can imagine the strict rules that undergird this dance, even as it permits for flourishes. You can also picture in your mind the beauty of a waltz well-danced: the sexy, closed position of the dancers, who face each other in an intimate pose of coupling, the man’s hand on her waist as he leads and she follows. You can imagine the mistakes, the possibility for breaking the mood, for stepping on a toe.
To call this film Take This Waltz — after the Leonard Cohen song, which is a loose translation of the beautiful Federico García Lorca poem Pequeño vals Vienès (“Little Viennese Waltz”), which itself replicates the pace of a waltz — is to connote the haunting, sexy unforgivingness of a dance so formal as the waltz. This conceit is both relentless and fragile, and the film is so beautifully acted and shot, that you need to see it (and you can! Rent it on iTunes or Amazon right now for $9.99; it’s also available On Demand, and it’ll come out in theatrical release in the US at the end of June 2012).
To call this an infidelity story is to reduce it to something very un-waltz-like, but at its bare bones that’s what the story treats: Margot (the always-wonderful Michelle Williams) meets Daniel (Luke Kirby) on a plane and finds herself drawn to his slim, dark knowingness. Who wouldn’t be? He glows below his tan; like a chess player, he always seems a step ahead of her in conversation, in knowing how to unnerve her, how to gaze at her with sexy purpose. At heart perhaps all of us want to have an affair — and let me assure you, we all want to have an affair with Daniel, whose good looks are not done justice by these images below. Where might he lead, if she allowed herself to dance with him?
The problem is, of course, that she and Lou (Seth Rogen) have been married for five years, and they have their own habits of movement, of dancing and quirky joking. There’s nothing wrong with their relationship: he’s a great guy, she’s fully folded into his family. And yet. When she learns that Daniel lives across the street, she can’t help but start to find loose threads in her marriage to toy with, to pull, to see faults in their fabric. She wants to abide by the rules, like her sister-in-law Geraldine who’s struggling to stay sober. But like Geraldine, she feels as if it’s only a matter of time before she fails.
To be sure, in the course of their marriage together they’ve developed some strange tics. They started as jokes, perhaps, but now they feel more like stutter-steps. Margot’s tic is an odd propensity to want to distract him while he does other things, perhaps even to rest a bit too much of their relationship on whether he can be turned away from the task of cooking or talking on the phone to kiss her. Is it still a joke after all this time? or is it a way to poke at him, to see if he’ll resist, pull away?
And then there’s Daniel. Their conversations become freighted with meaning, they grow physically closer in their flirtation with one another, yet they dance this waltz without touching, as if worried about breaking a spell, during this hot Toronto summer.
Cohen’s song is not the only one that propels this film, but its lyrics are so insistent, so sexy — they thump more than García Lorca’s, but with such driving sexual images and luscious sounds, like hot summer sex:
…Oh I want you, I want you, I want you
On a chair with a dead magazine
In the cave at the tip of the lily
In some hallway where love’s never been
On our bed where the moon has been sweating
In a cry filled with footsteps and sand
Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay
Take this waltz, take this waltz
Take its broken waist in your hand…
Writer-director Sarah Polley (Away From Her; Polley has also acted in numerous films and TV series including Go, The Sweet Hereafter, Slings & Arrows, and John Adams) has an extraordinary gift for shooting scenes with no dialogue — scenes in which the actors simply move, like dancers, through moods that rely on one another, that push back against one another. Between Daniel and Margot these scenes are some of the sexiest, most dynamic I’ve seen recently — when they ride The Scrambler together at the amusement park to the pulsing tune of The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” we can see in their faces that they have allowed themselves to pretend, to imagine other scenarios.
“I want to know what you’d do to me,” she later confesses — unexpectedly — over a martini. She squints up her face girlishly, as if to mitigate the effect of those words. He doesn’t let her take any of it back. It is such a sexy scene. And he’s right: that conversation makes the martinis redundant.
We all know how flirtation works, don’t we? We love to dance that dance. Flirting has its own rules, an innate nostalgia for past flirtations, its pleasures in unexpected twirls and secret improvisations. Flirting is as much about language as looks, smells, furtive touches. Cohen tells how it is:
And I’ll dance with you in Vienna
I’ll be wearing a river’s disguise
The hyacinth wild on my shoulder,
My mouth on the dew of your thighs
And I’ll bury my soul in a scrapbook,
With the photographs there, and the moss
And I’ll yield to the flood of your beauty
My cheap violin and my cross
And you’ll carry me down on your dancing
To the pools that you lift on your wrist
Oh my love, oh my love
Take this waltz, take this waltz
It’s yours now. It’s all that there is.
Does Margot feel a connection to Daniel that’s so powerful because she’s drawn to a grass-is-greener fantasy? Or could it be true love? If it’s the former — she wants something new — will that something new merely get old over time, the way things have gotten old with Lou?
The film touches lightly on those perennial questions asked by would-be adulterers everywhere, but ultimately the real question is Margot’s alone: “I’m afraid of wondering if I’ll miss it. I don’t like being in between things. I’m afraid of … being afraid.” What it is, what those things are, remain to be seen. Whether she can get over those fears also remains an open question.
This film has an unusual pace — it’s not perfect; it leaps over a couple of matters, moving the plot along. The dialogue sometimes feels … awkward? stage-y? But it’s still worth every penny of that $9.99 rental fee to see Michelle Williams play this role, to watch her flirt with Daniel in The Scrambler, to let her strange face register emotions. (I really need to dedicate a whole post to her face, especially her mouth, which I find poetic.) So what if it’s not a perfect film? It’s somehow relentless and yet delicate all at the same time, just like a Leonard Cohen song, just like a waltz, with its rules and the threat of making mistakes. ONE two three, ONE two three. Take this waltz, take this waltz.
Love and marriage are hard. Like the waltz.