“There’s no right decision for her to make.” Sarah Polley is talking about one of her characters, but it sounds more like a view of the world. “I think what’s scary is when people make life-denying choices,” she says. With more than 50 acting credits to her name and her second directorial feature ready for the world, Polley hasn’t exactly been avoiding life’s challenges.
Nor does she hesitate to challenge audiences, as evinced by the knotty conflicts and existential lament of Take This Waltz (opening in theaters this Friday), a thematic companion to—and stylistic departure from—her debut, Away From Her. A three-hander in which a married woman, Margot (Michelle Williams), is torn between the affections of her husband, Lou (Seth Rogen), and her desire for handsome neighbor Daniel (Luke Kirby), the film begins as a vividly visualized, candy-colored trifle but is gradually darkened by guilt, consequence, and the seeming impossibility of romantic fulfillment. “I was interested in the idea of life having a gap in it,” she says, particularly the need to fill it with, or blame it on, romantic relationships. “Generally, culturally, we’re really uncomfortable with the idea of emptiness. It might just be that some things are missing—and that it can’t be resolved.” The notion recalls something Julie Christie’s character says in Away From Her: “People are too demanding. They want to be in love every single day. What a liability.”
Released when the onetime child actor was but 27, that film—based on an Alice Munro story—was riddled with such tragic wisdom. Unlike most debuts, this wasn’t a coming-of-age tale but a becoming-aged tale of a couple overwhelmed by the encroachment of Alzheimer’s disease. It transitioned Polley from a Mona Lisa–grinned gamine to an Oscar-nominated, polished-on-arrival auteur.
Her follow-up isn’t strictly or neatly personal, yet it takes place in her hometown of Toronto, centers on characters in her own age bracket (she’s now 33, the significance of which will depend on your familiarity with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, in which she starred at age nine), and sifts through complicated feelings that wouldn’t be foreign to someone who has since been through a divorce, remarried, and started a family. “The lie is that you move on, and you’re just happy,” Polley says. “But it’s bewilderingly sad to be with someone for a long time and not have them in your life anymore.”
“When people ask if [Take This Waltz] is autobiographical, I often just say no,” she explains, in part because of the blanket assumption that it must be. “I don’t know if it’s being a female filmmaker or being young, or if it’s having been an actress, but people will not accept that it’s not completely based on my life.” Yet Polley, who’s in town for the film’s New York premiere, acknowledges that she’s present in the creation. “These characters in this situation didn’t really happen to me, but what I mean when I say no, it’s not me, is that I’m not Margot. The truth is I have been each one of these characters at some point in my life.” Most people, in Polley’s estimation, know all three parts too well, which might explain the passionate responses to the film. “Everyone takes a character’s position and thinks that the film is speaking from that position,” she says. “It’s as if they’re reacting to a Lars von Trier movie, as though I were saying there’s no God and everybody should fuck everybody.”
The character that seems to inspire the most intense reactions is Margot, whom even Polley intended to judge harshly until Michelle Williams imbued her with an innate goodness and playfulness. In a culture pretty much defined by men behaving badly, a “sexually restless” female character on-screen is still apparently discomforting. “We’ve gone so far backwards in terms of how simplified women have become on-screen,” she says. “You think about the characters that Bette Davis played. They used to be kind of crazy and problematic, a little selfish but deliciously so. Now it would just be about how she’s not likeable enough. It would get washed out in the script stage.”
As a new mother, Polley is mindful of how far the pendulum has swung since those days, on-screen and off. “My mom was a working woman, and she was a great mom,” she says. “She was part of that generation that really had to fight to keep working. And now I’m part of a generation in which I feel like I’m a criminal if I consider going back to work.”
Considering the commitment she brings to a simple conversation, it seems implausible that she could ever stop. You get the sense that she believes in the gap, in the emptiness at the bottom of things, but also that she’ll try to fill it anyway. “As fruitless as it might be to chase something that’s ephemeral, isn’t that where life is at?” she asks with an ease that suggests serious rumination on the subject. “That life doesn’t really yield what it’s supposed to, but it’s the striving?”