After 9/11, many cultural trend watchers pondered publicly: would artists be exceptionally inspired by the event? The answer has obviously proven to be "Yes," and Sally Potter's YES is undoubtedly the most inspired artistic response. Though a product of the American empire and global strife coming to a head, Yes tells a love story bursting with timeless philosophical, religious, and scientific contemplation, as well as contemporary socio-political import: in short, it's about everything.
Few filmmakers could be consciously redolent of Moliere, Dylan Thomas, and James Joyce and pull it off, but apparently writer-director Potter is first in that class. YES employs mostly heroic couplets (rhymed iambic pentameter) to explore its nationalist and personal politics. Joan Allen plays "She," a scientist who's convinced that life has more to offer than her loveless marriage (to Sam Neill's Anthony). Simon Abkarian plays "He," a Lebanese doctor turned London cook.
Their electrifying romance demands that each question long-held cultural assumptions and overcome personal prejudices. As half of a marriage deadened by infidelity and avoidance, "She" comes alive at the newness, appealing chaos, and flattery of "He"'s advances. "He" reciprocrates her desire for a lovely, intelligent, and exotic "other," but simmering prejudices eventually boil to the surface: while both show paranoia about cultural sterotypes, each also guiltily harbor prejudices about the other's perceived traditions.
A Muslim man, "He" harbors hurt at his displacement in society. Once a life-saving surgeon, the émigré has been forced to turn his knife to chopping food. Abkarian expertly navigates his character's angry frustration by wagging the knife in both the kitchen and the bedroom. For both "He" and "She," the phallic knife represents a thin double-edge of creation and destruction, a power usually controlled by men. Without it, "He" feels impotent and "She" feels envious, erupting—in a devastating car-park argument—"I want to stab you, fucker, in the back." An Irishwoman, "She" reminds him that she, too, knows "of holy war," of senseless hate.
But if the otherness of gender and culture becomes a repulsive weapon between the two, they also offer each other a profound attraction in transcendence of contested borders, judgmental onlookers, and "civilized" intrusions (ringing cell phones). "He" calls her his "secret country, land/Of all my longings," and Allen touchingly radiates the tension of her need and her hesitation. Abandoning her fear is a fleeting indulgence, and only by looking in the mirror can she learn to turn the practice into a way of life.
Everyone wants to be seen and understood as real and true, or—in other words—loved. As such, Potter's philosophical dialectic offers a variety of dialects as foils to "He" and "She." Neill's selfish hedonist smarmily insists, "I have feelings too," though his only sexual boundary cuts off his wife. "She"'s best friend Kate seeks compensation for her silent suffering as a single mother (Kate proves envious of "She"'s upper-classiness), while Kate's teenage daughter—"She"'s goddaughter—obsesses on appearance. The discordant chorus of "He"'s kitchen co-workers offer disparate views on women, religion, and London's diversity. Ever-present maids, invariably ignored, comment silently on what we choose to see around us.
Potter accesses subjectivity by occasionally switching from sound waves to brain waves, and by crafting lyrical visual imagery: delicate slo-mo passages, saturated color, and elegantly grainy, brightly blooming 16mm photography. Dominant cultural assumptions seem to crowd in on the lovers, with a Nativity scene and Santa Claus reminding of the Christian season of give and take. The film's emotional climax, carried by the Joycean interior monologue of "She"'s Irish-communist aunt, describes human failing—"we are the source/Of all the bad...and of the good things too..."—but offers an alternative: to live fully.
From the first scene, the Cleaner (Shirley Henderson) of "She"'s home confides directly to the audience and expresses the film's overarching philosophy. Though the home is apparently immaculate (and wintry), "cleanliness of course/Is an illusion...the deeper source/Of dirt is always there....It's us." The duality of human nature—animalism versus intellectualism, science vs. faith, body vs. soul—arises from the irresistable, roiling chaos beneath our perception (the human static of dividing cells and once-vital dust) that is, itself, a grand, unknowable order.
Potter represents the underlying order with the verse, the subconscious rhythm that powers the dialogue, and the actors wisely resist drawing undue attention to the form. "She"'s scientific exploration of life on a cellular level (in answer to spiritual doubt) and numerical banter initiated by "He" promote the human desire to make the world smaller and more comprehensible, explain away mystery with complicated constructs. To the Cleaner, "no" seems foolish and futile in such a universe: "There's only 'yes.'"
YES is heady stuff, and its daring breadth and ravishing style will be branded pretension by many, but its unique marriage of form and function expands the possibilities of cinema and deserves to be savored. Fascinating, sensual, and dizzyingly brilliant, YES is a must-see film.
[Click to read Groucho's interviews with Sally Potter, Joan Allen, and Simon Abkarian, as well as a review of YES: Screenplay and Notes. To read more about YES, including Potter's blog (with her description of her San Francisco stay), check out http://www.yesthemovie.com.]
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment provides a fine DVD transfer that replicates the beautiful filmic look of YES. Along with three trailers (Saving Face, Saraband, 2046) and an unusually artful Photo Gallery feature (showcasing 30 candid production shots by Nicola Dove), the disc includes the surprisingly intimate documentary short "YES: Finding Scene 54" (29:07).
This detailed, full-access look at the film's most important scene—a fierce argument between "He" and "She"—begins with crew and cast on an early "reccie" to determine if a garage-rooftop location, or a lower level, is viable. Five weeks later, actors Joan Allen and Simon Abkarian huddle with a deeply emotional Potter to discuss the scene's added weight following the U.S./U.K. occupation of Iraq; soon, all three are in tears.
Finally, the time comes to shoot the scene, revealing that Potter—despite communication challenges with DP Alexei Rodionov—gets exactly what she wants from her camera and her actors. The behind-the-scenes look affords a rare chance to see a scene developed over a number of weeks, played out in a number of different dynamics. (We also get to hear Potter comiserate with Rodionov about the lack of time afforded her by financiers; she then spins the challenge as an invitation into the "zen" of modern filmmaking—a productive creative trial).
Though it's a shame Sony didn't sit Potter and her actors down for a commentary track, the featurette is a revealing addition to one of 2005's best films of 2005, one unjustly overlooked in theaters. YES is not to be missed.
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