CANADIAN actor-turned-director Sarah Polley is clearly interested in the complexities of human relationships and how fragile they can be. In her magnificent first feature, Away from Her (2006), a longmarried couple discover the wife (Julie Christie) is suffering from Alzheimer’s, while in her excellent follow-up, Take This Waltz (the title is derived from a Leonard Cohen song), she explores one of the oldest themes in drama, infidelity in marriage.
In this film, too, it’s the woman who finds herself slipping away from her husband; and the poignancy with which Polley handles this theme, perhaps a semi-autobiographical one, as Eddie Cockrell suggested in his article about Polley in this paper recently, gives the film unexpected depth. On reflection, the film itself is a bit like a Leonard Cohen song, in which the words don’t — on the surface — always make sense yet the emotions are so powerful they break your heart.
Initially, I was a bit worried about some of the contrivances Polley uses to set up her story. The film begins with a beautifully tactile scene in which Margot (the excellent Michelle Williams) is baking muffins in her kitchen. The sequence is bathed in summer heat, the image slips in and out of focus, and Margot’s husband of five years, Lou (Seth Rogen), is barely seen. This doesn’t tell us very much, and nor does the following scene, where the action shifts to a tourist site in Nova Scotia, where Margot is working on a freelance journalistic assignment. Here she meets, and flirts with, Daniel (Luke Kirby), an amiable free spirit, and finds herself sitting next to him on the flight back to Toronto. Even more of a coincidence: he lives right across the street from the house where Margot and Lou live, in a picturesque backwater of the city.
Somehow the film overcomes this contrived set-up (and the rather too quirky conceit that has Margot travel through airport terminals in a wheelchair because, as she says, she’s frightened of connections). Once the relationships, personal and spatial, are established, Polley is able to explore in intimate detail the triangular situation. On the one hand, Margot clearly loves Lou — and Rogen gives a beautiful, relaxed performance. He’s writing a book about ways of cooking chicken, and he’s always busily engaged in preparing succulentlooking meals. On the occasion that they leave the intimacy of their little house and go out to a restaurant for a meal to celebrate their anniversary, the strains on the relationship become evident: Margot complains Lou doesn’t talk to her, and he replies he doesn’t see the need to talk because they know everything about one another.
She starts seeing more of Daniel, a would-be couple to their anniversary dinner); he’s amiable, sexy, a bit shallow. But the attraction is there and eventually Margot makes the decision that will change all their lives.
As can be seen, there’s nothing very new here in terms of plot, but Polley’s approach to the material is consistently fresh and often quite unexpected. Only a woman director, surely, would think to include extended scenes in a shower in which, after a session in the swimming pool, Margot, her alcoholic sisterin-law Geraldine (Sarah Silverman) and some of their friends, unselfconsciously carry on a lengthy conversation fully naked. Another level of intimacy is explored by contrasting the attitudes of the two men in her life when Margot unselfconsciously pees in their presence; Lou stays as if this was nothing unusual, while Daniel, embarrassed, leaves.
As if to emphasise that there are two ways of looking at Margot’s actions, Polley duplicates other scenes as, for example, when Margot and Lou argue and he sits outside the kitchen window while she remains inside on both occasions. There are other duplications, too, giving the film a structural richness that distinguishes it from run-of-the-mill Hollywood relationship movies.
Polley also uses songs to better-thanaverage effect, not only the Leonard Cohen song that gives the film its name (and which is played against a montage involving Margot, Daniel and the passing of time) but also The Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star, whose lyrics take on new meaning in this context.
There’s no dispute now that Michelle Williams is outstanding among a strong line-up of actresses in their 20s and her work here is and there’s a strong performance, too, from Silverman as Lou’s deeply troubled sister.
Toronto has never looked better, bathed as it is in a summer glow and alive with vibrant colours thanks to Luc Montpellier’s camerawork. Candid in the extreme, provocative at times and always interesting, Take This Waltz reconfirms Polley as one of the most interesting younger directors around. I’VE noted before that comedies represent the most difficult sort of film to write about because approaches to comedy vary so dramatically. Take Jerry Lewis, for example; there are those who find his work endlessly creative and sublimely funny, while others just can’t stand him. I had much the same reaction watching Comme un Chef, a vehicle for French singer, comedian and all-round media personality Michael Youn. Although Youn is immensely popular in France, watching him in this film was, for me, akin to someone scratching a blackboard — agonising.
He plays (if that’s the word) Jacky, a selftrained chef who keeps being fired from the restaurants where he works because he insists on telling the customers how they should eat the food — heaven help anyone who requests that his meat be cooked in a certain way; for Jacky there’s only one way, and it’s his way. His pregnant girlfriend, Beatrice (Raphaelle Agogue), is understandably fed up with his constant unemployment and insists he take a job as handyman at a home for the elderly; but he’s instantly drawn to the kitchen where he transforms the diet for the old folk. More importantly, he also gets an unpaid job as intern for master chef Alexandre Lagarde (Jean Reno), who is battling to keep his celebrated three-star restaurant, Cargo Lagarde.
Much of the film, directed by Daniel Cohen and scripted by Cohen and Olivier Dazat, makes fun of modern cuisine (molecular gastronomy and virtual calamari), but in the most obvious ways.
None of these scenes are very funny, but the film really plumbs the depths in an embarrassing sequence in which Jacky and Lagarde disguise themselves as a Japanese couple to spy on the food being prepared at a rival restaurant. I thought this kind of crude racial stereotyping had been long abandoned, but it seems it’s alive and well and we’re expected to laugh at it.
All of this may well appeal to a French audience because, as we know, food is taken very seriously in France. But despite its picturepostcard colours and its relentlessly bouncy music score — and despite the usually excellent Reno’s best efforts — Comme un Chef is a dismal affair.
Incidentally, on the print I saw the French title was subtitled in English as The Chef,
Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen in Take This Waltz
Michael Youn and Jean Reno in The Chef