Six Months On A Regimen Of Woman Filmmakers – Sarah Polley

By Alice Shindelar

Sarah Polley has a knack for symbolism that would seem superfluous in dialogue, too on-the-nose, but which plays out beautifully in her imagesAway from Her, Canada / UK / USA, 2006

Written and Directed by Sarah Polley

Based on the Story The Bear Came Over the Mountain by Alice Munro

Take This Waltz, Canada / Spain / Japan, 2011

Written and Directed by Sarah Polley

Once in a while, an artist comes along who gives voice to your world, to your experience of life, better than you can imagine ever being capable of, and you’re left exposed. Young writer-director Sarah Polley did this to me with her second film, Take This Waltz, and then again when I subsequently saw her first film, Away from Her.

Away from Her, Polley’s faithful adaptation of Alice Munro’s short story The Bear Came Over the Mountain, follows Grant (Gordon Pinsent) as he watches Fiona (Julie Christie), to whom he’s been married since their twenties, descend into the throes of Alzheimer’s Disease. Forgotten, Grant travels through memories of their marriage as he stands by and watches his wife love a fellow patient at the nursing home, Aubrey (Michael Murphy). Like all marriages, Grant and Fiona’s wasn’t a perfect one, but the moments we spend with them in their home before she’s checked into the hospital, their quiet hours, the spark of lust between them that doesn’t need to lead to sex before they sleep, provides witness to the survival of their love – a weathered love. Amongst many other awards, Julie Christie (Darling, Dr. Zhivago) was nominated for an Oscar for her role as Fiona. She nails the role in her ability to let Fiona’s memories fall away with a grace that appears so effortless one cannot doubt the fear and pain she must feel. When you witness the maturity and insight with which this story is told, it’s next to impossible to believe that Polley was only 26 when she made it, and to top it off, it was her first feature. 

Currently in theaters, Take This Waltz addresses the layers of how we love, the gray areas, with as much insight as her first film. I couldn’t justly tell you which one of her two films I prefer, though my vote sways towards Take This Waltz perhaps because it addresses an age group closer to my own. Named for the Leonard Cohen song, Take This Waltz centers around Margot (Michelle Williams), married five years to Lou (Seth Rogen), as she struggles with an immediate and severe attraction to her neighbor, Daniel (Luke Kirby). Detractors of this film believe that it justifies infidelity, but such a perspective can only come from a place of ignorance, or an inability to read the depths of a story. On the contrary, in this original story, Polley explores the idea of a fear of abundance – that love, if given to another, must be lost to someone else – that in grasping for that new love, we forget that the new also gets old.  In an interview with NPR, Polley said she “wanted to explore that gap in life,” a line that’s astonishingly poignant when expressed in the film through Sarah Silverman, a comedian most well-known for her vulgarity. The shining moments of the film include a dirty-talk scene in which Daniel word-humps Margot without ever laying a finger on her, and a waltzing montage that spans the entire sex life of a couple’s relationship from lust to familiarity to disintegration.

Polley’s strength as a director lies in her ability to garner intimate performances from female actors, proven by the depths to which Williams and Christie both go in their parts. Polley doesn’t stray from the difficult. She has no passion for sentimentality. Her eye ties together the bits and pieces. She has a knack for symbolism that would seem superfluous in dialogue, too on-the-nose, but which plays out beautifully in her images. She’s willing to turn the camera places others wouldn’t be willing to go, such as on the tired, wilted, cellulite-ridden flesh of elderly women beneath their locker room showers. I want to see more!

Alice Shindelar writes and lives in Brooklyn, NY. Contact the Author:

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