DEL­I­CATE DANCE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - David Strat­ton

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

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