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The Argument: In Take This Waltz, Sarah Polley transforms Toronto into a brightly coloured urban fantasy

The Argument | Unreal City

The urban fantasy depicted in Take This Waltz is as as beguiling and instantly nostalgic as an Instagram pic (Image: Mongrel Media)

In the middle of directing Take This Waltz, recently released in theatres, Sarah Polley hit a snag. She desperately wanted to get Leslie Feist to record a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Closing Time” for the soundtrack. Given how in demand the singer-songwriter is, it was almost impossible to pin her down—even for Polley, a bona fide Canadian celebrity herself. And then one night, around 2 a.m., while Polley and her crew were shooting on a small street in Little Portugal, she heard someone call her name. It was Feist—she and fellow singer Howie Beck, both on bicycles, were on their way to Trinity Bellwoods Park to play glow-in-the-dark Frisbee. Polley asked about the Cohen cover, Feist agreed, and her version of the song is heard at a pivotal point in the film. “That kind of moment is very specific to Toronto,” Polley says now. “It’s a really special place that way.”

The whole scenario sounds like a parody of the lives of hip, young downtowners—the punch line for a skit from a rejected Torontolandia pilot, maybe. But it’s exactly the kind of bohemian and pleasantly casual community that Polley, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, set out to capture.

Take This Waltz is Polley’s second feature as a director, after the Oscar-nominated Away From Her. Its slender plot details the dissolution of a comfortable but constricting marriage. The sad sack copywriter Margot, played by a strawberry-blond Michelle Williams, must decide between her friendly but bland husband (played by Seth Rogen) and the sexy rickshaw driver/artist (played by Luke Kirby) with whom she is reluctantly falling in love. The film is set primarily in the middle of a sweltering Toronto summer, but seems as though it were lit with Christmas lights. Bright reds and greens pervade, recalling the red of a streetcar, the green of a Steam Whistle beer bottle. Ashbridge’s Bay appears dipped in amber. “We wanted an overload of colour,” Polley says.

The film portrays Toronto as the kind of place where new lovers, instead of immediately jumping into the sack, go for a late-night romantic dip in a public pool that’s devoid of lifeguards and other swimmers, and lit, enchantingly, from within. The film indulges shamelessly in local details: characters carry tote bags from the designer Virginia Johnson and the late-lamented Pages bookstore, read the literary magazine Brick in the airport and watch The National at night. If they want to grab an early-morning coffee, they go to a sunny, garbage-free Kensington Market. If they want to catch a movie, they head to the Royal on College, which is playing Claude Jutra’s Mon oncle Antoine. There’s a kind of nostalgia for the present at play here—the whole movie has the cozy, burnished feel of an Instagram photograph.

For the longest time, in the movies of our most acclaimed auteurs, Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg, the GTA was a glum, antiseptic and nearly anonymous place. It was always winter, even when it wasn’t. Extras seemed extra—our downtown streets were strangely depopulated. Clement Virgo’s 2005 film Lie With Me, about two 20-something lovers having a wild affair in the Annex, was one of the first to offer a more romanticized, even eroticized, depiction of the city. Toronto suddenly looked like a place in which people really lived and loved, a place where you’d want to live and love.

A cluster of more recent films—Ruba Nadda’s Sabah, Reginald Harkema’s Monkey Warfare, Bruce McDonald’s This Movie Is Broken, Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World—similarly render Toronto as a locus of genuine charm and excitement. Even Egoyan’s most recent film, Chloe, while still set in a high-gloss ghost town, manages to make Café Diplomatico seem like a hub of sexual intrigue.

Polley’s film, though not as fantastical as, say, Scott Pilgrim, is a self-conscious fairy tale, one in which the city plays itself—in every sense of the word. This is Toronto with a tickle trunk, playing make-believe and in makeup. To achieve this effect, she shrinks the city—sometimes literally, as when Margot runs all the way from her Parkdale neighbourhood to a hoped-for meeting in the Beach. “This is Toronto as I feel it,” Polley says. “Not as it always looks.”

Having turned the city into a walkable, leafy Pleasantville full of microbreweries and fusion restaurants, Polley fails to offer up a story that is equally beguiling. The characters exist in an urban playground, but aside from a few notable exceptions—a noisy day trip to the Centre Island amusement park; a highly charged verbal seduction at the Lakeview Restaurant—they spend more time moping around than enjoying themselves. When they speak to each other, it’s often haltingly, and in heavily freighted, metaphorical dialogue. In an early scene, Margot admits to always feeling nervous in airports: “I’m afraid of connections,” she says. The only character who seems to be having any fun at all is Margot’s sister-in-law, played by Sarah Silverman—and she’s a recovering alcoholic.

Take This Waltz is all about seduction and desire, and about how heightened and unreal everything can seem when a cramped-up heart is suddenly and unexpectedly set loose. Even if the denizens of this urban floating world are not as interesting as their surroundings, the film makes Toronto look like a place worth lusting after—and within. The kind of city where two strangers can meet for a late-night rendezvous, or a round of glow-in-the-dark Frisbee.

FILM
Take This Waltz
Directed by
Sarah Polley
In Theatres Now