With “Take This Waltz,” the Canadian actress-turned-filmmaker Sarah Polley makes her bid to be taken seriously as an auteur and a stylist: Two Oscar nominations for her debut, “Away From Her” (2006), apparently weren’t enough. The new movie’s a visual achievement and a narrative muddle: A color-drenched story of lust, love, and infidelity, it suffers from a vagueness that may be the point but that feels accidental.
It’s also the first movie in which Michelle Williams’s ethereal uncertainty is in danger of turning into schtick. She plays Margot, a struggling writer living in a Toronto that feels like a summery fever dream; the cinematography is by Luc Montpellier and it blesses everything we see with pungent, steamy hues. The only thing that lacks color is Margot’s marriage to Lou (Seth Rogen), a bluff guy’s guy who’s writing an all-chicken cookbook. The couple engages in baby talk and lovingly brutal insults: foreplay as mock sadism. But she’s bored, and during a freelance visit to Fort Louisbourg, she meets Daniel (Luke Kirby), an edgily attractive young man. In the first of the film’s many coincidental tics, he turns out to live across the street from her.
Temptation so close at hand, and what’s a girl to do? The early stages of the couple’s forbidden courtship have a rough erotic charge — the scene in which Daniel explains to Margot exactly what he’d like to do to her and in what order is a stunner — but “Take This Waltz” has a larger game in mind. Polley’s exploring the difficulties of human connection and our tragic, annoying habit of always reaching for the new thing, the latest beautiful face, while ignoring what we have. Margot lives for the thrill of sexual flirtation and has no idea what to do when it’s gone.
Intriguingly, Kirby’s Daniel is both hot stuff and a bit of a creep; his dark side fires up Margot’s own. The movie is loaded with self-conscious quirks, though, and after a while you start to feel shut out. Why is Daniel a rickshaw driver (in Toronto, no less) if not for the visual novelty value? How does he afford his picturesque apartment? When Margot says she has a phobia about air travel because she’s afraid of making connections, is Polley really being that obvious?
As a screenwriter, then, she takes risks while struggling with the basics, and she’s stronger with the heady rush of scenes set solely to music: a carnival ride cued to “Video Killed the Radio Star,” a slow, aching dance to Leonard Cohen’s title song. The cast either hangs on to the rails or falls off. The comedian Sarah Silverman brings a needed clarity to her handful of scenes as Lou’s sister, a self-aware, self-sabotaging alcoholic. I wish I could say the same for Rogen, who’s growly and likable but out of his depth here; when Lou is called on to express devastation, the actor is just not up to the task.
Williams, whose career some of us have been following for well over a decade, makes a brave attempt to portray a smart, frustrated woman in flux. Shapelessness is built into the role: Margot calls herself a writer but she doesn’t have the words. Yet she, too, gets lost in the film’s overbearing style and dramatic ambivalence. Late in the going, Polley closes the trap around her heroine and reveals an endless wheel of romantic karma, but it’s too late to bring the film into focus. “Take This Waltz” moves to a tune only its maker truly hears.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.