Feminists have made much of the right to say "No." In her latest film, British writer-director Sally Potter, a key figure in the feminist avant-garde cinema, says "Yes," affirming the radical potential of desire by telling a cross-cultural love story, inspired by the events of 9/11, through a script composed in rhyming verse. While a cinematic blend of poetry and politics may sound worse than fingernails on a chalkboard, the surprise is that Potter's film actually works, achieving at times an odd, lilting cadence that's just peculiar enough to be captivating—and a raw emotional power that transcends the film's clunkier moments.
Yesconsiders the illicit relationship between She (Joan Allen), an American scientist in London whose marriage is disintegrating, and He (Simon Abkarian), a Lebanese immigrant who was a surgeon in his home country but now works as a sous-chef. They meet just after She and her husband (Sam Neill) have icily argued in the car on their way to a formal dinner. She is therefore ripe for the warm affection that He offers later that evening. Their affair ignites quickly but just as soon grows cold, as the lovers battle against the constraints of their differing cultural backgrounds.
The movie's focal point is an argument set in the bunkerlike confines of a parking garage. As He and She angrily confront the social and cultural strictures that alternately bind and feed their desire, Potter imposes her own set of boundaries on the script—namely, a rhyming structure that is sometimes apparent and sometimes invisible, depending on the actors' delivery. He and She may quarrel, but their inchoate rage must find expression in verse. The result is at once frustrating and striking. We desperately want them to connect, but they can't step outside the codes that at once enable and debilitate them.
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Potter further underscores the role of form by fragmenting the story. Yesopens with She's housekeeper (a perfect Shirley Henderson) speaking directly to the camera about the wayward habits of dust. As the film continues, the cleaner acts as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on the plight of the house's unhappy inhabitants while delineating the film's larger themes. Potter also uses impressionistic slow motion and repetition to help convey She's state of mind, and scatters whispered remarks in voice-over that further encourage us to understand the story from She's point of view. But just as often, the film jars us out of that viewpoint—Potter sometimes even employs the anonymity of surveillance footage, for example—to refuse a singular vision in favor of a weave of perspectives.
Potter began her film career with the 45-minute Thriller, which reworked Puccini's LaBohmeas part opera and part noir investigation. Completed in 1979, the iconic black-and-white film, with its witty irreverence toward its source, became a cornerstone of a burgeoning feminist filmmaking practice known as "revision," whereby female artists tore through the male-dominated canon, making movies that asked questions about power and privilege. Potter's other trademark is her attention to feminine desire. Her films often rummage around in the neglected hearts and psyches of women, uncovering forms of love otherwise ignored in the history of cinema.
While much of feminist filmmaking's once-fiery potential has since faded, in part due to its makers' insistence on a kind of Brechtian alienation that dispenses with enjoyment, Potter has always offered plenty of pleasure with her politics. And Yesis no exception. Some aspects of the film certainly cause umbrage—cultural clichs, for example, or the giddy seaside embrace that seems to undermine the film's thesis. But Yesis nevertheless a visually impeccable and conceptually intriguing film that poses one of the most volatile questions of our time—can two fundamentally different cultures work through their historical biases to achieve a deep and mutual respect?—and optimistically answers in the affirmative.
YES WAS WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY SALLY POTTER; PRODUCED BY CHRISTOPHER SHEPPARD AND ANDREW FIERBERG. NOW PLAYING AT EDWARDS SOUTH COAST VILLAGE, SANTA ANA.