'Take This Waltz' steps deftly through a marriage losing steam

Margot and Lou have been happily married for five years, yet there are some issues. There are always marital issues. But they're not always rendered as skillfully and provocatively as in Canadian director Sarah Polley's "Take This Waltz."

She sets the stage with an opening party -- and post-party-partum discussion -- in her characters' idyllic Toronto home.

"Say something," says Margot (Michelle Williams) after they've cleaned up.

"Why?" asks Lou (Seth Rogen).

"So we can have a conversation -- why don't you ask me how I'm doing?"

"I know how you're doing," he answers with a fond smile. "We live together. We know everything already."

Among the Mysteries of Margot is the fact that she's phobophobic -- afraid of being afraid -- and subject to bouts of inexplicable melancholy. Warm, fuzzy Lou, on the other hand, is a successful and wholly satisfied cookbook writer, who can't understand her restlessness, let alone her neediness.

Which is more sexual than emotional. Like many husbands, Lou has lost his lusty ways. She hasn't lost hers, but he shakes her off when she distracts him from his cacciatore and tries to lure him into the bedroom. She finally explodes.

"What the [F-bomb] are you talking about?" he wonders. "I'm just making chicken."

"You're always making chicken," she replies.

Margot is ripe for her encounter with new neighbor Daniel (Luke Kirby), who is that rare combination of artist -- and rickshaw driver. He's a lone ranger with no faithful companion in Toronto. They have an instant, intense chemistry, henceforth stealing moments in and out of the swimming pool during a steamy summer.

Sooner or later, she's going to have to make a choice.

The story line is not terribly unique. What's unique is the captivating performance of cherubic-face Williams, one of the best and smartest actresses of our day, thrice Oscar-nominated for "My Week With Marilyn" (2011), "Blue Valentine" (2010) and "Brokeback Mountain" (2005). In my opinion, she should have had two more for her work in the beautiful "Meek's Cutoff" (2010) and "The Station Agent" (2003).

Oscars should be considered, in the present, for Leonard Cohen's haunting title song, whose lyrics consist of Cohen's own superb translation of the Federico Garcia Lorca poem "Little Viennese Waltz" (see box, below) -- and for director-writer Polley herself. This is a worthy follow-up to her brilliant first feature, "Away From Her," a wrenchingly fine Alzheimer's story starring Julie Christie.

Ms. Polley takes on the tough subjects, for sure, imbuing her work with intelligence and choreographic cinematography. Margot and Dan's romantic Tilt-a-Whirl ride, for example, is stunning -- with a stunningly unromantic end. There's a terrific women's shower scene -- hilariouly natural, with a plethora of less-than-beautiful flesh on casual display. And Polley's final circular loft shot provides a gem of an ambiguous conclusion to the film.

"Everything new gets old," Ms. Polley suggests. Margot and Daniel have a mutually frustrating look-but-don't-touch relationship until he asks her what she really wants, and she replies, "I want some hope. I want to know what you'd do to me." That $64,000 question gets a $128,000 double-down answer in the form of his incredibly erotic monologue of exactly what he'd do, step by sexy step. It leaves her, him and us breathless -- and would pin-curl Aunt Thelmah's hair.

Sarah Silverman does an over-the-top turn as Margot's BFF Geraldine ("Life has a gap in it -- you don't go crazy trying to fill it."). But the best surprise comes from Mr. Rogen, who proves again that he can turn in a solid dramatic performance when he needs to.

"Take This Waltz" doesn't ultimately achieve the emotional resonance it aims for, but its thorny adult themes -- if treated honestly -- rarely do. The narrative of a marriage running out of magic becomes, to some extent, a muddle about lust and infidelity and what Ms. Polley calls "the happiness imperative."

Her film is not prescriptive. It's an unsentimental autopsy of the good, bad and ugly things that long-term relationships do to love.

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Excerpted lyrics from Leonard Cohen's "Take This Waltz," his translation of the Federico Garcia Lorca poem "Pequeño Vals Vienés":

Now in Vienna there are ten pretty women
There's a shoulder where Death comes to cry
There's a lobby with nine hundred windows
There's a tree where the doves go to die
There's a piece that was torn from the morning,
And it hangs in the Gallery of Frost

Take this waltz, take this waltz
Take this waltz with the clamp on its jaws
I want you, I want you, I want you
On a chair with a dead magazine
In the cave at the tip of the lilly,
In some hallway where love's never been
On a bed where the moon has been sweating,
In a cry filled with footsteps and sand
Take this waltz, take this waltz
Take its broken waist in your hand

This waltz, with its very own breath
Of brandy and Death
Dragging its tail in the sea

There's a concert hall in Vienna
Where your mouth had a thousand reviews
There's a bar where the boys have stopped talking
They've been sentenced to death by the blues.

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