Man, Verse, Woman: Sally Potter’s “Yes”
by Jeannette Catsoulis with responses by James Crawford and Michael Joshua Rowin
[ indieWIRE’s weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot. ]
A meeting of soulmates secreted deep inside an attraction of opposites, Sally Potter‘s “Yes” is also a supremely sensitive observation of racism, classism, imperialism, and fundamentalism. And if that sounds like a lot of ‘isms,’ they’re only the tip of Potter’s narrative iceberg, which also encompasses aging, alienation, and the precarious relationship between identity and sexual power. Yet, amazingly for a film so teeming with ideas, “Yes” unspools inclean, lucid scenes of near-spartan simplicity-proving definitively that complexity of message need not require an equivalence of execution.
Conceived in response to the post-9/11 treatment of those of Middle Eastern descent, Yes begins in London and follows the love affair of two exiles — one actual, one figurative — known simply as He (Simon Abkarian) and She (Joan Allen). He is a Lebanese surgeon who has fled Beirut and now works unhappily as a hotel chef; She is an Irish-American biologist trapped in an icy marriage to a faithless English politician (Sam Neill). “Each cell knows its destiny,” she muses enviously, hovering over a petri dish. But it will take almost the length of the movie before she surrenders to her own.
Until that point, “Yes” is immersed in the desperate passion of two people grasping the lifeline of erotic love as a placebo for much deeper emotional needs, and it’s in this section of the film that Potter’s flair for movement fully surfaces. Her absolute faith in the expressiveness of the physical body infects the normally cool Allen with a libidinous grace, making her scenes with Abkarian wickedly earthy (most notably during a bout of heated restaurant foreplay). For his part, the sensual Abkarian-best known to American audiences as the Armenian painter Arshile Gorky in Atom Egoyan‘s “Ararat” — is the perfectfoil for Allen’s pale elegance.
While Potter’s eloquent script highlights the sexual charge of racial and religious difference, production designer Carlos Conti‘s meticulous sets emphasize their emotional and temperamental dissimilarities. She lives and works in white, sterile surroundings, all glass and metal and reflective surfaces; His workplace is noisy, steamy, and chaotic, his home a cave of spicy color and womb-like comfort. Accenting the illicitness of the affair, Potter spies on the couple via surveillance camera, their conversation mute. A stroll in the park is furtively documented by a camera stalking them from the cover of trees and shrubbery. Russian cinematographer Alexei Rodionov (who also shot Potter’s “Orlando“) evokes the fragility of the relationship with an impressive array of techniques, often tilting the frame beyond stability. Every time these two are together, in fact, the film swoons with an undercurrent of uncertainty.
Always a suggestive visualist, Potter (like fellow Brits John Boorman and Michael Winterbottom) is also fascinated by language. “Yes “is written almost entirely in iambic pentameter (10 syllables to a line), delivered so fluidly and unaffectedly audiences may not even notice. Potter admits to being influenced by her background as a lyricist and composing the script as if she were writing a song. Her actors were instructed to ignore the verse and concentrate on meaning, and the result is a potent, rhythmic dialogue that invests key scenes with near-operatic power. Most crucial of these is an argument staged in the echoing anonymity of a parking garage, which serves as the film’s turning point. He has begun to rebel against the secrecy of the relationship, and his pride has made him long for the familiar sexual dynamics of his homeland. “Love distracts us,” He complains, as the appeal of the exotic transforms into claustrophobia. “I have remembered who I am.”
Easing the intensity is the delightful Shirley Henderson, playing a philosophical maid who’s fond of delivering humorously pungent, direct-to-camera soliloquies on the ubiquity of dirt and what it reveals about us. Functioning on one level as Greek chorus (“They leave each other notes, but rarely speak,” she whispers as She and her husband move silently behind her), the character also symbolizes the tide of service people-usually ethnic, always invisible-who swirl around us. Throughout, “Yes” portrays life from the particular to the universal, from duelling organisms in a petri dish (and sloughed cells on a bedsheet) to the enormity of war itself.
Moving from London to Belfast to Beirut to Havana, “Yes” is an ambitious and lyrical argument for tolerance and self-awareness. Rarely has a cinematic love affair benefited from such insight and intelligence; but ultimately we shouldn’t be surprised that the first- ever recipient of the Satyajit Ray Award — for the director with the most “uncompromised aesthetic vision” — continues to prove those judges right.
[ Jeannette Catsoulis is a frequent contributor to Reverse Shot who has also written for the Independent, DC One Magazine, and regularly writes for the New York Times. ]
By James Crawford
The best modern interpretations of Elizabethan theater run roughshod over meter, obliterating it to fit dramatic exigency. Sally Potter, by contrast, forces her actors in “Yes” to obey strict Shakespearean rhythm and couplet rhyme, meticulously penned in rhyming iambic pentameter, scuttling much of the tension. When Joan Allen’s and Sam Neill’s strained yet acutely decorous marriage finally comes to the boiling point, I found myself wanting for the pregnant pauses and strained silences indicative of a relationship on the rocks. Because the actors are corseted into the metronomically regimented stress and release of iambic feet, the scene fizzles-and Allen’s teetering-on- hysterical tirade falls embarrassingly flat. As one lover says to another, “conversation” may be “like an aphrodisiac/Because it flowed like a nectar or a juice,” but in the unending, perpetual tumble of words and images, shouted epithets lack punch, and emotional states struggle to find resonance.
Despite any emotional failings, Potter’s dialogue is undeniably beautiful, it allows her to explore Big Ideas like death, love, and fidelity, so attuned are our ears to the confluence of sophisticated themes and finely-worded poetry. Yet Potter’s lofty rhetoric cannot hide the fact that her approach to these subjects is awfully schematic. The break-up between Allen’s Irish-American “She” and Simon Abkarian’s Lebanese “He” is deployed as an excuse to sermonize at length on the antipathies between East and West (read: Christian and Muslim ideology); her and Neill’s disintegrating marriage is portrayed through a set of awkward (and unnecessary) canted angles; the random intrusion of a terminally ill aunt functions as a weak segue so that Potter can muse on the nature of mortality (though her deathbed epic poem it is positively riveting). And most maddeningly of all, a dryly comic book by Shirley Henderson — a wise-fool cleaning lady delivering her morals to the audience in direct address — is squandered because it’s only loosely connected to the rest of the drama.
Oftentimes, critics decry the fact that so much money is funnelled into computerized special effects, to the detriment of story, plot, and everything else. So much, we proclaim, could be ameliorated by putting more effort into the words being said. Sally Potter’s cross- cultural sept-à-cinq affaire, just might disprove that claim; the script is paramount, while everything else-directing, narrative suspense, and cinematography — falls by the wayside.
[ James Crawford is a frequent contributor to Reverse Shot. ]
By Michael Joshua Rowin
Thankfully, Sally Potter’s original screenplay for “Yes” is available in paperback, for I can think of no other recent film that has made me want to re-experience its dialogue, in this case written in the form of a poetic iambic pentameter that never becomes contrived or showy. The classical makes a surprisingly fitting vessel for the modern as characters’ interior monologues, asides, direct addresses, rambling confessions, frustrated accusations, and deeply felt pronunciations try to make sense of a very confusing, divisive post-9/11 reality. Unfortunately, like the other few cinematic responses to 9/11 (most notably “I Heart Huckabees“), “Yes” fails to be a complete success by trying to say a little about everything-it’s a shame to watch certain issues, like Western society’s obsession with youth and bodily perfection, brought up only to be relegated to the back-burner. Nonetheless, Joan Allen and Simon Abkarian’s conversations on science, love, religion, and the cultural barriers that complicated and fuel their affair-executed in Potter’s well-crafted, witty pentameter-are the heart of a film that is at its best when working through language to express its limits (miscommunication, anger) and epiphanies (communication, love).
Beyond the verbal, however, “Yes”‘s errors are a bit disconcerting. How could the same director who made the sumptuous “Orlando” allow her latest project to look so shoddy? Various scenes shot with a low shutter-speed give the film the look of a cheap music video trying to be flashy. Then there’s the rushed, seize-the-day/love-conquers-all ending, a disappointing capper for a film that deserves a more complex and thoughtful conclusion. These would be taken for rookie mistakes if Potter wasn’t so damn masterful in other areas. Anyway, aren’t mistakes part of art? The ubiquitous house-cleaner/chorus of the film ponders life’s imperfections: “For, everything you do or say is there, forever. It leaves evidence.” Even with flaws, “Yes” is art as evidence: evidence of Potter’s talent and courage.