2004Director: Sally Potter
Cast: Joan Allen, Simon Abkarian, Sam Neill
idway through Sally Potter’s latest film, Yes, the lovers named only She (Joan Allen) and He (Simon Abkarian) engage in a wrenching argument in a deserted dark cavern of a parking garage. This was the scene Potter wrote first for her script, just after the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, and it serves as the film’s—and the larger parable’s—turning point. Until now, theirs has been a secret affair, ignorant and oblivious of each other’s origins. In picking this fight, He makes clear that the luxury of such denial has become impossible. Further, this is the only time that any character in Yes mentions that they’re all speaking in rhyming iambic pentameter. Complaining that he has had to make all the cultural adjustments in their relationship, the man says, “I even rhyme in your tongue.” At first merely panicky, she is suddenly curious, asking, “Tell me more.”
Their background: She is a Belfast-born, U.S.-raised research biochemist, living in London and married to a British politician (Sam Neill) who cheats on her. He is a Lebanese surgeon who left Beirut to escape the war there. In London, He works as a chef, until an incident with a bigoted kitchen worker forces him to quit. They meet at a dinner party where he notices her distress—she is pacing, later weeps at the table over her husband’s unfaithfulness—and speaks gently to her. Their affair is rapid, lyrical, heated—but cannot escape the steaming, clanging bickering of the kitchen workers.
In the parking garage, He breaks it off, following the kitchen incident. They each return ‘’home,” She to her aunt’s Belfast deathbed, He to his friend’s clinic and wedding celebration. Speaking by cell from the Belfast hospital corridor to a bombed-out street in Beirut, She asks him to meet her in—of all places—Havana. She arrives alone; he’ll join her. She goes sight-seeing and night-club dancing in scenes intercut with his Beirut activities. A single musical sequence overlays and unites these alternating scenes, suggesting that his return to Beirut is somehow equivalent to her tourism. Early in their affair, He had called her his “true home.” Certainly, their reunion suggests they complete one other, both literally and as parable.
The title of Potter’s film is a reference to Joyce’s Ulysses—the word falling at the beginning and end of Molly Bloom’s monologue about the transcendent joys of physical union, a monologue that pushed the limits of language in the early 20th century. That most of the film’s dialogue is written in verse steals across our awareness slowly, or possibly not at all. The dialogue has a measured cadence and sometimes obvious rhymes, but some viewers might recall the dialogue as merely “lyrical” or “poetic.” Potter says that she directed her cast to concentrate on their lines’ emotional content rather than count its formal beats. That is, excepting a single reference, she preferred to leave the language’s structure submerged. And since the argument in the parking garage is about uncovering the social structures that make their relationship problematic—especially for him—dropping this mention to the dialogue’s rhyme is simple consistency.
The rhyming dialogue that Potter says made investors most reluctant—Yes was made in the end for about half its original budget—should not scare audiences off. Sally Potter is an English musician, performance artist, singer, dancer, and stage actress who also makes movies, writing, directing, and sometimes scoring her own films. Her earlier films, the first in 1979, some shorts, a feature shot in Iceland with Julie Christie and an all-female crew (The Gold Digger), and some documentaries, are mostly unavailable in the U.S. She is at home across art forms: Her early short film Thriller adapted Puccini’s La Boehm, and her 1997 film The Tango Lesson (sadly, another hard film to locate) stars Potter herself as a screenwriter named Sally Potter, who escapes writer’s block with dance lessons. She has worked, too, with elaborate period pieces, notably Orlando, her 1992 adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel that recapitulates four centuries of British history, with actor Tilda Swinton in the title role, and 2000’s The Man Who Cried, a saga of European anti-Semitism.
At first glance, her work might seem akin to the experimental cinema of British avant- garde contemporaries like Peter Greenaway in its “high cultural” literacy and tone. But Potter has been, increasingly, a part of the wider cinematic landscape since Orlando, and her work has developed over the same last quarter-century as many internationally inspired indie filmmakers. The self-referential hand-held “home video” look may not be for Potter, but there’s a similar concern with violence, enormous attention on re-working narrative, inventive camera angles, focus and speed, sound design that conveys aspects of narrative beyond straightforward plotting, and comedy alongside the serious (often, some character turns to the camera mid-action for an ironic quip). Potter has increasingly used international crews and American actors interested in international projects; her current cinematographer worked with French director Alain Resnais on such films as Last Year at Marienbad and Night and Fog.
Yes is hardly a stiff, “arty,” esoteric film, either unto itself or in its pedigree. This begins immediately with its performances. With the possible exception of her “earth mother” role in 2003’s Off the Map>—I’m going to pass over The Upside of Anger here—Yes’s She is a sensual and openly emotional Joan Allen that American audiences have rarely seen, emerging from pinched, stodgier roles such as First Lady Pat Nixon, The Contender’s tight-lipped Senator, and The Crucible’s silently suffering Elizabeth Proctor. Armenian-Lebanese actor Simon Abkarian is a graceful, loose-limbed man; He performs a Lebanese wedding dance for She after one of their trysts (a dance he’ll perform again later at a friend’s wedding in Beirut with obvious hesitation, perhaps conveying his recollection of dancing earlier for his lover).
But the paramount scene in Yes, for manifesting the tension that contains passion within structure, occurs in a restaurant, where He’s hand beneath the table touching her causes She to climax. The polar opposite of that famous When Harry Met Sally restaurant scene, in which Meg Ryan’s character loudly calls attention to herself by demonstrating how to fake an orgasm, here is a delicious demonstration of conveying more with less—just She’s hand tightening on his arm, her breath catching. “Delicious” must be the effect that Potter was shooting for; He licks his fingers playfully afterward, causing She to laugh.
Upon its release, Yes was hardly uniformly praised by American critics. The New York Times’ A.O. Scott accused Potter’s characters of “overblown tristesse” and her dialogue of “staggering banality” in his review, just after the film had screened at the New York Film Festival. After a brief September theatrical release in the U.S., the DVD followed in November. But, it’s worth noting, Scott also found the plot in the Oscar-winning Crash “implausible” in its neatly interlocking pieces; that Paul Haggis’s film was about the redemptive power and magic of love, not logistics, sailed over his head. And the heart of Yes is not about metrics either.