Potter's "Yes" is a movie unlike any other I have
seen or heard. Some critics have treated it as ill-behaved, as
if its originality is offensive. Potter's sin has been to make
a movie that is artistically mannered and overtly political;
how dare she write her dialogue in poetry, provide a dying communist
aunt, and end the film in Cuba? And what to make of the housecleaner
who sardonically comments on the human debris shed by her rich
employers? The flakes of skin, the nail clippings, the wisps
of dead hair, the invisible millions of parasites.
I celebrate these transgressions. "Yes" is
alive and daring, not a rehearsal of safe material and styles.
Sally Potter could easily have made a well-mannered love story with
passion and pain at appropriate intervals, or perhaps, for Potter,
that would not have been so easy, since all of her films strain
impatiently at the barriers of convention. She sees no point in
making movies that have been made before. See for example "Orlando," in
Swinton plays a character who lives for centuries and trades
"Yes" is a movie about love, sex,
class and religion, involving an elegant Irish-American woman
Allen) and a Lebanese waiter and kitchen worker (Simon Abkarian).
They are known only as She and He. "She" is a scientist,
married lovelessly to a rich British politician (Sam
Neill). "He" was a surgeon in Beirut, until he saved
a man's life only to see him immediately shot dead. Refusing to
heal only those with the correct politics, he fled Lebanon and
now uses his knives to chop parsley instead of repairing human
They meet at a formal dinner. They do it with their eyes. He smiles,
she smiles. Neither turns away. An invitation has been offered
and accepted. Their sex is eager and makes them laugh. They are
not young; they are grateful because of long experience with what
can go wrong.
There is a scene in the movie of delightful eroticism.
It involves goings-on under the table in a restaurant. The camera
regards not the details of this audacity, but the eyes and faces
of the lovers. They take their time getting to where they are almost
afraid to go. They look at each other, enjoying their secret, He
looking for a reaction, She wary of revealing one. Her release
is a barely subdued shudder of muffled ecstasy. This is what sex
is about: Two people knowing each other, and using their knowledge.
Compared to it, the sex scenes in most movies are calisthenics.
She was born in Belfast, raised
in America, is Christian, probably Catholic. He is Arabic and
Muslim. Both come from lands where people kill each other in
the name of God. They are above all that. Or perhaps not. They
have an economic imbalance: "You
buy me with a credit card in a restaurant," He says in a moment
of anger. And: "Even to pronounce my name is an impossibility." With
his fellow kitchen workers he debates the way Western women display
their bodies, the way their husbands allow them to be looked at
by other men. He is worldly, understands the West, and yet his
inherited beliefs about women are deeply ingrained, and available
when he needs a vocabulary to express his resentment.
She, on the other hand, displays her body with a languorous healthy
pride to him, and to us as we watch the movie. There is no explicit
nudity. There is a scene where she goes swimming with her god-daughter,
and we see that she is athletic, subtly muscled, with the neck
and head of a goddess. To recline at the edge of the pool in casual
physical perfection is as natural to She as it is disturbing to
He. Their passion cools long enough for them to realize that they
cannot live together successfully in either of their cultures.
Now, about the dialogue. It is written in iambic
pentameter, the rhythm scheme of Shakespeare. It is a style poised
between poetry and speech; "to be or not to be, that is
the question," and
another question is, does that sound to you like poetry or prose?
To me, it sounds like prose that has been given the elegance and
discipline of formal structure. The characters never sound as if
they're reciting poetry, and the rhymes, far from sounding forced,
sometimes can hardly be heard at all. What the dialogue brings
to the film is a certain unstated gravity; it elevates what is
being said into a realm of grace and care.
There is her dying
aunt, an unrepentant Marxist who provides us her testament in
an interior monologue while she is in a coma. This monologue,
and others in the film, are heard while the visuals employ subtle,
transient freeze-frames. The aunt concedes that communism has
failed, but "what came
in its place? A world of greed. A life spent longing for things
you don't need." The same point is made by She's housecleaner
Henderson) and other maids and lavatory attendants seen more
briefly. They clean up after us. We move through life shedding
a cloud of organic dust, while minute specks of life make their
living by nibbling at us. These mites and viruses in their turn
cast off their own debris, while elsewhere galaxies are dying;
the universe lives by making a mess of itself.
Can She and He live together? Is there a way
for their histories and cultures to coexist as comfortably as
their genitals? The dying aunt makes She promise to visit Cuba. "I want my death to
wake you up and clean you out," she says. You and I know that
Cuba has not worked, and I think the aunt knows it, too. But at
least in Cuba the dead roots of her hopes might someday rise up
and bear fruit. And Cuba has the advantage of being equally alien
to both of them. Neither is an outsider when both are.
Potter has said, "I think yes is the most beautiful
and necessary word in the English language." A statement
less banal the more you consider it. Doesn't it seem to you sometimes
as if we are fighting our way through a thicket of no?
When He and She first meet, their eyes say yes to sex. By the
end of the film they are preparing to say yes to the bold overthrow
of their lives up until then, and yes to the beginning of something
hopeful and unknown.
Sally Potter, Director |
Chris Sheppard, Producer
Cast & Credits
He: Simon Abkarian
Kate: Samantha Bond
Grace: Stephanie Leonidas
Billy: Gary Lewis
Sony Pictures Classics presents a film written and directed by
Sally Potter. Running time: 99 minutes. Rated R (for language and
some sexual content).