"Take This Waltz" Then Move On?: Breakups in the Age of Selfish

Sarah Polley's film is one of the best films of the decade because it asks the most from us.
Greg Gerke

Illustration by Leah Bravo

Five years ago, a film came and went with little fanfare, except a spattering of positive reviews, making around $4 million worldwide on a budget of about $10 million: Take This Waltz. More people know it as a Leonard Cohen song, from which its title comes. More people know Leonard Cohen than the director Sarah Polley, but as of this cultural moment, more people might know the star, Michelle Williams, than Leonard Cohen, due to her other movies and a popular TV show. These jejune concerns amplify less than we know and more than we'll admit. Name recognition: these go into the common denominators decision people look for when they decide to fund a film, a book, a play. How will it sell? How will it fit? What can it capitalize on? How can we make something that will not make people think too much or depress them? We also use this type of moxie to uncover the dramas of our own lives. We silently search for the reason why someone is more fashionable or more entertaining than another or ourselves or why we might be ashamed of our lives, before we dissolve those pills with food, entertainment, or something else pro-ego. How we can keep our self-talk well shaded inside without seeming to break a stride in the face we share with everyone we don't trust enough to confide in?

Today, incredibly, there is what we like and then ourselves, in that order. Thanks to profiles, to coteries, to meet-ups, and to every bit of specialization, what we like says more to a person about who we are, than what we look like, what we do, where we work, how we were educated, even how much money we have. The year 1984 might have marked The Revenge of the Nerds, but this year marks the dominance of nerds, nerdom, and nerd culture—that is, people who nerd out on specific things: games, beer, certain types of food, and the granddaddy of them all: television shows. What entertains is a criterion that creates a temporary salve between people at parties or work and the family who hardly sees each other until Thanksgiving. And by all rights, the most watched entertainments form how we conduct our lives, which for many of us boils down to our relationships. There is no mistaking that many of our intimate romantic relationships suffer,  as 40-50% of marriages end in divorce or separation, and people spend hundreds or thousands of dollars a year on therapy in many forms, dating sites, pornography, and prostitution in order to anesthetize the holes these relationships leave behind. And so there came a feature film, seriously grappling with the mystery of love and attraction, with enough recognizable stars to get widely distributed. Unsurprisingly, it was little seen.    

Some works break away from the consumerist bauble. They aren't event, artifact, or artifice—they are art. Take This Waltz qualifies and taking it together with Polley's documentary Stories We Tell, a companion piece made a year later about uncovering her true father as well as a portrait of her mother, are among the best films in this souring decade. The best because they ask the most from us, because they press at our fears like few films do, and in the case of Take This Waltz, dramatizes our greatest fear realized, other than death; that we won't always love the person that we think we may love forever, that time will dictate it was not meant to be, and, to make it all worse, he or she will go right into the arms of someone else. And this is done from the point of view of the one pulling away and causing the pain. Often other films and television shows try to picture this but usually fail, because they don't go far enough and because their makers aren't mature enough to see into the layers of the situation; the drama too cookie-cutter and hollow. I've talked to people about Take This Waltz and it has pulled them up short and shaken them out of their be-kind-in-public mode. Their disposition shifts, they become ill at ease, their voices deepen—the exact same reaction all three times I've met someone who's seen it. A friend, a roommate, a stranger at the Food Coop—all of them women, who tetchily said in one way or another, Yes, I saw that—oh, God.

The film shows a relationship coming apart, but in a heightened manner of expression. Set in summer in often sunbaked frames, reds and other primary colors come out in Toronto's Little Portugal neighborhood and Nova Scotia, where it was filmed. The opening unfocused shots of Margot (Michelle Williams) haunt the whole, as she soon falls away from her husband Lou (Seth Rogen) towards a thinner, more conventionally handsome man, Daniel, that she meets in Nova Scotia at the outset and takes a plane back to Toronto with only to find he lives just down the street. Margot resists her obvious interest but they keep crossing paths and she comes back home to security, and to a husband who is mostly home, as he cooks chicken for a living while working on a cookbook. Each time she returns she has to hug him from behind as he stands at the stove. She can't breathe with her husband, she can barely talk to him. They share cutesy baby talk, which might be a stable condition for many baby-less couples, but she soon castigates him for employing it when they are getting ready to have sex on the kitchen floor, felling her mood as she has had Daniel on her mind and may have had his image in mind while getting turned on to Lou. Finally, the married couple watches TV while eating dinner and doesn't talk. Margot wants intimacy and attention, not so much sex—they have their routines and they aren't that adventurous, just taking off shirts before a morning fuck. This leads to the grand kicker; and what may be open to interpretation, but like a great work of art, all interpretations only make the memory of it better: Margot would not have left her husband for better sex, but because he did not provide the kind of intimacy she desired (cuddles, conversation, intrigue into the great questions of life, not just the childish routine they share of trying to one up each other with insults like, “I love you so much, I'm going to put your spleen through a meat grinder”), she has no choice but to be with someone who will help her grow, who says Yes to life in a correlating manner. And though the film, ludicrously sold on the DVD cover with the quote, “Flat out sexy,” does have its skin moments, and sexually explicit talk, “I played with you, before I entered you, before I spread your legs and fucked you hard,” it has, à la Eyes Wide Shut, a much deeper purpose—to unearth the perplexities of what keeps us together and what doesn't—all apart from sexuality. At the end of Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives, the couple who broke up in the beginning gets back together, with the man saying: “We've learned to tolerate our problems more...I've learned, anyway, that love is not about passion and romance necessarily. It's also about companionship and it's like a buffer against loneliness, I think. That stuff is important. Somebody to grow old with. What kills most people is unreal expectations.”

Sarah Polley's most pronounced statement in regard to this uncouthness is the scene at the beginning and ending of the film. Margot is cooking at a stove (echoes of her husband) in her new apartment and she sits down in front of it and stares about, while she wonders, thinks, regrets?—we don't know—just as Daniel wanders in, unfocused, and stares out the kitchen window, though at the end she eventually goes and hugs him, from behind. How can we understand love, loss, need, and other feelings? The images of an actress silently displaying a mix of feelings is the statement, which might only be a catch-22 leading to the cliché, life is hard.

The sweet and simple short of it is we don't want films like this because relationships are shown in too harsh a light. Our psychology likes to dictate what success there will be, but books and films like Take This Waltz remind us how vulnerable we are and how through no fault of our own, everything will come crashing down if that's what's to be.

Looked at on its worst days, humanity can seem jaded, over-assuming, fearful, nervous, and mostly incapable of discourse or acts of humility; receiving or discarding other people by unconscionable whims... A fair-use slogan of a certain coterie of people still in existence in this country is, We create our own reality. It may also be safe to say that our technology, especially our multifarious messaging options, creates another all-mind being, absenting the body, which contains the heart. The spacing on a subway car once put me in a perfect position to see (unseen) what a man typed on his phone and I saw fragments and a few complete sentences that made it apparent he was breaking up with a person by text and they continued to debate, with him supplying more words, more reason, for his decision. Askew, my eyes closed. I wondered what it would take for me to do something like this, to mutedly emote what a torn heart must, but in public—typing it into a machine that would send the message, while sitting still in a place of such plasticity and remoteness from light and friends that many people hold tight their faces for the thirty to sixty minutes it takes to get from the door to work. Not to mention what it would take for me to associate with someone who would accept this type of interaction for extremely important matters like this one.

Today, when confronted with something that is painful, the instinct is to push it away, to reject. To not take responsibility nor get engaged but instead to not allow feeling is a fine recipe for sublimation. The blame game begins, a most admired game we have been refining for hundreds of years, until now it is our most patented reflex. Blame has become synonymous with understanding—we conceive of most of our life acts in concert with how much blame we can, should, or will endure. This happens in nearly every facet of our culture, even incredibly in sports, where a player, manager, or upper-management person often takes the responsibility even before a hack reporter asks, Who is to blame for this poor outing, this loss?

Take This Waltz resists blame. The screenplay isn't interested in this cruel counterpoint, but in actually feeling the pain of longing and separating. This is often conveyed through the superlative qualities of the main actor. Michelle Williams is certainly the best American actress of her generation as she continually fills out more and more complex psychologies. In Take This Waltz, she conveys fear, surprise, awkwardness, tedium, control, regret, and fatigue with a naked spontaneity. I have seen her no bullshit gaze in a few interviews and would have to assume she draws on the spirit of herself in order to inform her performances. I don't know how she does what she does, if she employs a method. I don't want to know either. Her performance crystalizes as the thing itself. There is a human being on the screen and like Daniel Day-Lewis, like Phillip Seymour-Hoffman, and all the greats, she gives so much it is hard not to feel she is sharing a special intimacy with the audience.

Williams takes on the most difficult roles, those that require more presence acting than delivering words, especially in this film and in Blue Valentine, which is a most interesting corollary. In that film, released the year before, Williams' character is also stuck in a type of loveless relationship. There is a daughter, though her boyfriend is not the father, though he raised her so. The film oscillates in time between their courtship and their gloomy future, but it was somewhere in between (something we don't see) where its decisive moments occurred, because in the future she hates him from the get-go, and this seems to be most engendered by his not having a career beyond house painter, even in his forties. In Derek Cianfrance's film, the deck is stacked pro forma on the side of the female character, and it isn't too interested in getting into her responsibilities for the relationship not working. Her romantic interest in a doctor she works for seems a little hackneyed and undercooked and I can't help thinking Cianfrance succumbed in some way to pandering to that ultra cliché: All men are jerks, with the perhaps intended result being Williams' character coming off as cruel and highly judgmental.

At the same time, no one can wear pain like Michelle Williams, it oozes forth in the same way that Wordsworth defined the sublime in poetry: a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. Her whole body becomes a tourniquet, trying to clog the loss of spirit that marks her great characterizations. In Take This Waltz, she is able to go further. Her face is a little lumpy with all the chicken she's eaten with her husband. She's a little awkward in gait and communication, like she is a reluctant nerd in training under her husband's full-on nerdom. She's tentative about the world because she can't relate in her relationship, though we never see her before she meets Daniel. But I have a strong feeling her and Lou’s problems were always there. Williams modulates her American voice differently (though set in Canada, she's not speaking with a Canadian vowel shift), something even someone as great as Nicole Kidman cannot do—the inflection of her voice in Eyes Wide Shut and Dogville is pretty much the same, though of course, she is putting on an American accent in both. Williams, born in Montana, talks quicker, probably more like someone living in the East (Toronto) would talk. As she embodies the wound, she also portrays how life-giving it is. She plays the raptures of the new and the pain of the old simultaneously, giving her husband many chances, albeit without the ultimatum the audience knows is in her head, that she will leave unless he becomes more than he has been—always an impossibility.

The way Polley structures the story is unexpected. Take This Waltz is one of the very few break-up films or novels where the new lover dominates early and then pretty much disappears, while the partner that is left takes on larger significance with the break-up. In fact, we really don't know the Seth Rogen character until a series of Bergmanesque close-ups of anger and sadness reveal how he deals with the reality of her leaving, as he speaks the storied line, “I thought you were going to be there when I died.” Another boon of the film's form is its flash-forward after Margot leaves her husband. A continuing circling shot in Margot and Daniel's new apartment shows a year passing in a variety of poses and situations, many carnal, including ménages à trois with members of both sexes, and many displaying a cuddling energy absent in Margot's marriage—they even cuddle when they watch TV.

Then, one year later, Margot comes back to her house, spurred on by the subplot of the alcoholism relapse of her sister-in-law (Sarah Silverman). We find out she has been very out of touch—has she and Lou even been divorced yet? The police are about to take away the Silverman character, but they let her talk to Margot briefly, and she says to her, “I'm the embarrassment? Me? Do you know we're doing the same fucking thing here? I think you're a bigger idiot than I am. Life has a gap in it, it just does. You don't go crazy trying to fill it...” This introduces the aspect of regret, which is fortified in the penultimate conversation between Margot and her husband, as Margot eventually shrinks from him, regretful.

The words between Margot and Lou on the porch of the house they used to live in together are worth highlighting and giving a font to in order to see them better. After some initial niceties and jokes about the chicken book, which did get published, they frown in silence, then, after he says he's not seeing anyone:

MARGOT: Do you ever...think?
LOU: No, I don't, I don't think so.
MARGOT: You said you're not seeing anyone.
LOU: Some things you do in life, they stick.
MARGOT: I'm so sorry.
LOU: There's no reason to be sorry. How can you be sorry for doing what you had to do?
MARGOT: But I think that—
LOU: We didn't have this conversation then, I really have no interest in having it now.
MARGOT: Of course, I'm sorry, I got it.

What happens here? The “Do you ever...think?” line is never finished. It is probable she means getting back together, since just minutes before her sister-in-law ridiculed her decision. But why would Margot say such a thing, after a year of apparent happiness, though there is a nod to her and Daniel's relationship becoming rote? Maybe she means, Do you ever think...of me and it gets compounded because of all her self-doubt. My feeling is many couples who break-up rarely have it all out because it takes time and reflection to be able to say what we feel. Margot is weakened here. She feels she made the wrong decision.

According to the final scene by the stove, her new love is a blur, literally, as again we see the opening scene with him walking into the kitchen out of focus and remaining so, even as she hugs him. Then she goes for a solitary ride on the tilt-a-whirl at the circus—what she and Daniel did on one of their Platonic dates. Her face is sad, then happy, and then baseline as the car whirs about.

How do our contemporary views on relationships read this? What exactly are our views? Do we have any? There is no guidebook in general use. In all our high schooling, the study of literature is what guides us the most about ethics and being ethical in relationships. Romeo and Juliet. The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby. Isn't it incredible that this is still our culture's commonality aside from television shows? Manners and morals from the roaring 20s, let alone the Puritan Northeast and Elizabethan England, shaping what we know of love and pluck. Has love changed? Lionel Trilling in 1970 said that the vision of order, peace, honor, and beauty in those works had no place in the fiction of that time, but high schools don't teach many contemporary works, they teach To Kill a Mockingbird. James Joyce gave a name to these ideals—to enter “the fair courts of life,” which Trilling says, “...was the very ground of the moral life as the novelists (and Shakespeare) once represented it—the moral career began with the desire to enter the fair courts of life; how one conducted oneself in that enterprise was what morality was about.” 

Love rarely has the answers, but it supports the answers. Maybe the film's ending can best be parsed as a quiet rebuke to the childish and cop-ish phrase, “move on,” “moving on,” “to move on,” “to move past” (whatever iteration) which our society employs antiseptically as a cure-all to death, tragedy, and loss of love. This is apart from the impetuousness behind Moveon.org, a political action website. The idiom is said to come from the 1800s in England, from police lingo. The move on meaning, Get going, nothing to see here, even though of course there is something to see—the aftermath of an accident or other incident. Wiktionary gives the idiom two meanings: to leave somewhere for another place and to start dealing with something else. Again and again after tragedies far greater than break-ups, we hear the injunction by officials. Only ten days after the Sandy Hook Shootings, on Dec. 24, 2012, Time magazine ran an article with the subtitle: The last of the burials are over, but memorials to the 20 children and 7 adults killed in the Dec. 14 rampage are still growing as Newtown, Conn. ponders how to move past a senseless tragedy.

“Move on” is basically a caveman grunt. I would certainly not be the first person to say that as we lose our language, we lose our capacity to feel, which by extension is the capacity for the purest of emotions—compassion. Fittingly, a man of the street (where they say there are smarts), in Al Pacino's Searching for Richard documentary on Shakespeare, said it the best, “When we speak with no feeling we get nothing out of our society...That's why it's easy for us to get a gun and shoot each other, we don't feel for each other...” But “move on” is also much more complex than its two syllables seem to mean, as even our most pedestrian bite of language can become imbued with a greater urgency in an attempt to make the little we say count. The two words have come to be a cudgel with various engravings and escutcheons on the handle, holding various resonances and connotative meanings like: grow up, don't investigate the issue further, there is no room for discussion, this is a no-reflection zone, and if you need to talk, go see a therapist. Yet, the way many people better themselves  (therapy) is such a remote event from our everyday lives (and something done in private, out of view—necessarily so), anything resembling it has no room on the national stage. This idiom is trotted out in many break-ups, as often one (or sometimes, inexplicably, both people) will refuse to say any more after a certain point whether out of fear, grief, revenge, sanctimony, or an impulse to follow the lead of our paltry politicians, officials, and other negligible people who have greased and wound their way to a title. Telling someone to move on isn't only an embarrassment to our supposed democratic souls, it's a flip of the finger to the culture and its capacity to feel and demonstrate the empathy that the Greeks and Shakespeare, among others, helped to create. A repression, it says. Don't learn. Don't emote.

Love's not love that's not vulnerable—that's the line of a fine-toothed poem I pondered at an age when I tried to define the emotion, the same age as all the principals in the film. Perhaps, I am not the best epigone of cultural critique when tallying the effects of the phrase move on, since some years ago it stung me. I'd become suspended in a ping-pong relationship that would break up and then quickly adhere like a snowbank in a blizzard. I thought I'd wanted out, but I had nothing to catch as I fell away from the relationship, lacking a place to stay, and desperation fueled my days. Were we to continue, I said to her on our last day, could we stand a chance? I think you should move on, my former love replied, knowing as I didn't that she'd found a new man, and as the furies would have it, he happened to be a friend of mine for the past year and a half, and very privy to all our quandaries. In any case, the directive haunted. Directive—I thought of that Robert Frost poem we'd read each other in our salad days with its soft ending after many iron lines: “Here are your waters and your watering place. / Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.” From that poeticism to move on. The end of intimacy is the end of language. What should I do with my meagre two syllables? Move on. How is such an injunction to be taken? Mind you, this was not a cop; she was a third-year surgery resident, but it sure felt like a cop's bark, though granted, the fearful preamble—I think you should—would have no store in police vocabulary. Surely, she told me to move on because she had, and also the idiom was a slurring Swedish for, We're not going to get back together, though we have so often—even after I was convinced it would never work out and I took you into my body and said, I love you. Yes, well—no, not even after that.

Again, think being the operative word. Did she care what I thought or was it, like, more a unilateral thing? Like the scene with the close-ups of Lou demonstrate, when we break-up we truly begin to pay attention to language and individual words, and hence how we treat one another, because finally, our language colors our memories even if they are wordless moments. We talk to ourselves  about our pasts in absolute privacy. Our language is the only arbiter that can make peace between us, our spirits, and our minds. It points the way like lights on an airstrip, however bitter or sour the remembrances.

It must be said that no break-up of a relationship taking a significant amount of time or intensity is the end of anything. It stays with one for a while, sometimes years and sometimes all remaining years. So “move on,” one of those exigent phrases having a gilded meretricious lining, must be the most wrong-headed, piss-poor, especially ugly thing to say because it won't be heeded, not even by the person delivering it. Move on truly means, I (or my organization) have no way of having a discourse for whatever reason: fear, anger, loss, and thus, won't be engaging. And there the door closes. As in the above lines from Take This Waltz, there is no possibility to speak what we feel, and shockingly, to even not speak what we ought to say. Margot or Lou gain no closure, even a year later, and the last thing Lou says is a stab at the one-upmanship of their old love threats. Who can know why it's so hard to communicate? This new language sickness was born sometime in the last twenty to twenty-five years, beginning with the rise of cable television and all those channels and with communication further eroding by the Internet and phones, there is more of everything, while there's less talk, less sharing, less intimacy. So it must come back to how we talk to each other. We either talk in clichés or not at all, and the age-old reluctance to say I love you soldiers on.

Relationships are a nettling and funny business. The young get hamstrung over them because they want to be grown up—they are worried about their places in the world, even if they don't always known what the world is. The old treat relationships with a casual wave of a hand—if they've survived long enough with someone, they've become inured to what makes their lastingness last, and those alone, who've been through the cycle or cycles, often enjoy, on some level, their solitude, with their house kept in order by no one but them. The French filmmaker of the confrontational and acerbic, Maurice Pialat, titled one of his films, Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble (We Won't Grow Old Together). It is the most difficult fantasy because of the we involved. W. B. Yeats wrote a poem in 1932:

 After Long Silence

Speech after long silence; it is right,
All other lovers being estranged or dead,
Unfriendly lamplight hid under its shade,
The curtains drawn upon unfriendly night,
That we descant and yet again descant
Upon the supreme theme of Art and Song:
Bodily decrepitude is wisdom; young
We loved each other and were ignorant.

It's short, it's sharp, and it shocks because it takes a few readings to unfurl it. Descant means “a melody or counterpoint sung above the plainsong of the tenor” or “discourse or comment on a theme.” The poem appears to say, We aren't wise until we are old, and we are so ignorant when young. So what does that “love,” that is no more, mean? It can't be pointed to a in resume, only alluded to in the after-hours of new love, when we trust enough to confess, enough to know we may have a better handle. Rightly, this is the poem that would encapsulate the meeting of Margot and Lou (or us with whomever we choose) years on. This is what they will have to say, happily or not. They will have the conversation they couldn't (and wouldn't) have had in their early thirties. Margot on the circus ride might have had an inkling that “bodily decrepitude” is wisdom, but how would she know unless she went through the years to get there? There is a long silence for her in the cooking scene stretching to the circus scene. There are no words spoken. Her search begins and in the beginning there are a number of false starts—the mixed emotions overcoming Margot in the tilt-a-whirl. She isn't moving on. A further definition of descant is “a variation on what is customary.”

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