Marriage Polley style

The Canadian director waltzes in with a new man, a new baby and a bold new movie that hits pretty close to home

Marriage Polley style

Magnolia Pictures

Everyone was nervous about the shower scene. It may not have been essential to Take This Waltz, the story of a wife (Michelle Williams) who’s tempted to cheat on her husband (Seth Rogen). But in a movie ripe with love and sex, writer-director Sarah Polley liked the idea of showing women casually naked in a context that has nothing to do with either: a shower room at the YMCA. The scene presents all kinds of female bodies—old, obese, black, white—on full frontal display, along with Williams, who lathers her hair while Sarah Silverman asks herself why she bothers to shave her legs for a husband who won’t notice.

The morning they shot the scene, Polley offered her stars a reprieve. “You guys are off the hook,” she told them. “If anyone wants to back out of it now, I don’t care what’s in your contracts, I’m not forcing anybody.” As the director recalls, “It created this weird feminist roar—No, we’re doing the scene! They were nervous yet really into it at the same time. It was oddly liberating.”

Polley seems to have a knack for getting her way—whether she’s enlisting Williams and Silverman to get naked, or coaxing an Oscar-nominated performance from Julie Christie in Away From Her (2006). In that debut feature, which Polley finessed at the age of 27, she cast Christie as an Alzheimer’s victim who forgets she has a husband. Now in Take This Waltz she has cast Williams as a woman who regrets she has a husband. Set in a hot Toronto summer, the story revolves around Margot, a writer of tourist brochures stalled in a comfortable but unexciting marriage to an author of cookbooks solely devoted to chicken. On a trip to Cape Breton, she meets a tall dark stranger (Luke Kirby), who by wild coincidence lives across the street back home. He’s a romantic fantasy, an artist who makes his living as a rickshaw driver—literally pulling a chariot.

Take This Waltz marks yet another rite of passage for Polley, who has been “coming of age” as long as we’ve known her: as a precocious child star, left-wing activist, accomplished actress, Oscar-nominated filmmaker, and now, at 33, as the mother of a four-month-old girl, Eve. After the uncanny maturity and restraint of Away From Her, based on an Alice Munro story, Polley has really let loose with her second feature—a bold, expressive portrait of her own generation set in the funky Toronto neighbourhoods of her own backyard. And it would be all too easy to assume that the story of a failing, five-year marriage is autobiographical, given that her own five-year marriage, to film editor David Wharnsby, ended in divorce in 2008.

But Polley—who married David Sandomierski, a Ph.D. law student, last year—denies the script is based on her breakup. She says she sketched out the idea and the first few scenes while editing Away From Her with Wharnsby. “So it wasn’t taken from my life,” she says, “and the marriage in the film doesn’t resemble the marriage I was in at all. Nor does the way it ended.” Also, Polley’s new husband was hardly a stranger when they got together. They’d known each other in Grade 9 and met again at a high school reunion. “We’re three weeks apart in age,” she says, “and we grew up a mile apart. We know all the same people from our childhood.” She laughs. “It’s like an old-fashioned village marriage.”

Still, whether it’s art imitating life or the other way around, the personal angst of Take This Waltz runs deep. A decade ago, Polley said part of what moved her to make Away From Her after reading Munro’s story was “untangling” her relationship with Wharnsby and trying to imagine it 40 years down the road. With Take This Waltz, she says, “I was interested in that period of your 20s and 30s when you’ve been in a long-term relationship and familiarity has superseded passion. Can passion and familiarity co-exist? Or does one crowd out the other? But Margot isn’t like me; I don’t know anyone like her.”

Polley says the seed for the movie was planted when Julie Christie gave her a couple of books by modern Buddhists addressing “the concept of emptiness and having a gap in your life.” As Margot tries to fill that gap with an affair, she explains, “I wanted to capture that feeling of dropping into desire, when you’re in love and in lust, and how delicious the world looks, how it pops with colour.”

From the blood-orange hues of the couple’s rococo house to the saturated skies of a lakefront sunrise, it’s as if the whole movie has been tie-dyed. It unfolds as a kaleidoscope of Toronto references—the hipster haunts of College Street, the island ferry, the bedtime drone of Peter Mansbridge on the tube. It’s also a playlist picture, with a Canadiana soundtrack that ranges from the pulse of the Parachute Club’s Rise Up at an aquafit class to the Leonard Cohen waltz of the title.

Since its September premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, the film (opening June 29) has received a more mixed response than Polley’s first feature. It was shut out by the Genies, with only two nominations; Away From Her won seven awards. Yet Polley is sanguine. “All the criticism has been really smart,” she says, “so it hasn’t been wounding. But people’s reactions seem to be so visceral.” She recalls talking with director Wim Wenders at TIFF, and telling him, “I feel my criticism of the film is that it’s too light and a bit too candy-coated, but people are responding to it as if I’d made something controversial. He just looked at me and said: ‘Don’t you get it? People are still not ready for Madame Bovary—for a woman being the one having the affair.’ ”

Take This Waltz belongs to a new breed of confessional female dramas that break the tidy “chick flick” mould at the risk of being branded indulgent. This month’s crop includes Your Sister’s Sister by Lynn Shelton and Lola Versus—written by Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones, who retaliated against negative reviews with a charge of sexism: “Older male critics,” they said, “don’t like messy unapologetic stories with women at the centre. There was a similar backlash against HBO’s Girls.”

Polley navigates the same kind of emotional quicksand. But what distinguishes her is a novelistic depth of observational detail, and a shrewd talent for winning the trust of A-list actors. Williams has said she had an imaginary relationship with Polley well before they met: “You know when you’re on take 10 of a scene, and you still haven’t found your way in, and you’re calling upon the gods for some sort of help? I do WWSPD: What Would Sarah Polley Do?” Polley, meanwhile, calls Williams “the best actor of her generation—I could never do what she does. She and Julie Christie are incredibly similar: they’re crazily collaborative, and they’re willing to take huge risks and fall on their face. That’s where the magic happens.”

Canadian actor Luke Kirby, Williams’s lesser known co-star, was understandably nervous about playing the confident dude who sweeps her off her feet. Their steamiest love scene takes place fully clothed over martinis in the afternoon, as Kirby describes with phone-sex precision what he’d do with her body. It was the first scene they shot. “I couldn’t quite grasp how I could say those words without it being comical,” says Kirby. “But looking over to her, Michelle has such strength in her ability to just be there, a palpable stillness—an open, excitable presence.”

Polley, meanwhile, cast Rogen and Silverman, two comedy stars, in largely dramatic roles. She had Rogen in mind as she wrote the script, and says he turned out to be “the most laid-back, comfortable-in-his-own-skin actor I’ve met. Actors are really complicated creatures, and he’s not. He’s not even like other people.

Silverman, who plays Rogen’s alcoholic sister, was a special case. “I’ve never been so star-struck by anybody,” says Polley. “I just think she’s the funniest, smartest person in the world.” The admiration was mutual, and helps explain why Silverman bared all for that shower scene. “It’s funny,” says the comedian. “Women showering at the YMCA and kibitzing is something very normal. But it’s so oddly taboo in movies. I had fear about doing it, but when Sarah asked me, I said yes because I felt so lucky to be in her movie. And I trust her. What have I got to lose? I want to seem to be at least as comfortable with my body as I’d like young girls to think I am. Am I going worry about losing parts to Megan Fox if my body isn’t hot enough? I mean, I’m 40.”

But if Polley were in front of the camera, would she get naked? “I don’t think so,” she admits. “It’s pretty ballsy. It wouldn’t have been as ballsy before the Internet. Now the images last forever. More than that, the nasty comments last forever.” But to test the light, Polley cleared the set, stripped off her clothes and posed in the shower. “The light was as flattering as it could be possibly be,” she laughs, “and I still hated my body.” It’s one more reason why this actress would rather direct.

Don’t forget to read Brian D. Johnson’s review of the film.

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