To the surprise of many, mainstream film-making (and by that I mean Hollywood) has not really embraced 9:11 and the subsequent War on Terror as fruitful story territory. Maybe its all too close to home – even films like The Interpreter, which dealt with attacks on the UN, preferred to set their stories in fictitious African republics rather than deal with reality. Perhaps Ken Loach came closest with Ae Fond Kiss, but even that kept the political firmly in the realms of the personal, though it took a searing look at racism and relationships.
The last Sally Potter film I saw was Orlando, that strange and magical tale of the androgynous and long-lived Elizabethan, played by a luminous Tilda Swinton. Yes is the story of a similarly luminous and unnamed woman (Allen), an Irish-American scientist living in London. Unhappily married to a philandering politician (Neill) whose youthful optimism has long since died, she is not looking for an affair, but when she meets a Lebanese man (Abkarian) who makes her laugh, she discovers that she is ripe for one.
At first their affair is a sweet escape for both. He was a doctor in Beirut; now exiled in London, he works as a chef, cut off from his family, his culture and his home. She lives a sterile life in a dead marriage. Together they create a world, and find a sanctuary in each other’s flesh, a secret space of need and desire and fulfilment. But, as it does, gradually the real world intrudes. Everything that first attracted him to her – her blondness, her American-ness, her status – now only serves to remind him of his daily humiliation and powerlessness in a world where his skin colour marks him as an outsider.
Yes is a powerful and thought-provoking piece of cinema. Language is very important to Potter, who also wrote the screenplay, and she has chosen to write Yes as a long form poem. The actors speak their lines naturalistically, but the rhymes give a structure to the language in the same way that iambic pentameter does (the Globe is experimenting with performing Shakespeare in an authentic Elizabethan accent, which apparently brings out the rhyming structure in the same way). Sometimes it’s a bit mannered, but it mostly works – and it makes it very difficult for the characters to speak in clichés. The erotic language that he speaks to her when their affair is at its height reminded me of John Donne’s love poetry; intimate, heightened, beautiful, intense and embarrassing for the listener.
Part of Potter’s experiment is with the nature of reality itself. We hear what the characters are thinking a line or two before they open their mouths. Time slows; speeds up; we see scenes as if shot on CCTV or in blurry slow-mo – imitating as best it can the jerky flip-flop way that we go about our lives – simultaneously crossing the road while talking on the phone remembering a conversation and planning what to cook for dinner that night and reminding yourself to buy flowers for your mum’s birthday – we do all this without even realising it.
Joan Allen is one of those actors, like Morgan Freeman, who brings class to any film and here she gets to run the gamut of emotions– unhappily brittle at first, like her character in the Ice Storm, she blossoms as a woman in love, fights for and then grieves for her marriage. She’s not afraid to look ugly and snotty when she’s crying either. Simon Abkarian is a good match for her; you can see why these two characters are drawn together, and why they fall apart. The supporting cast are excellent, especially Sam Neill as the world-weary, blues-playing MP, trapped in a sterile shell of a marriage; Shirley Henderson as the seen-it-all cleaner and lugubrious greek chorus, musing on the nature of dirt. Some of the storylines are a bit truncated and there’s a few too many points made that cannot be explored properly – there’s no time to deal with celebrity obsession and body fascism in an already weighty tale.
In the light of recent events, the film seems almost prophetic, but it is cautiously optimistic; it seems to believe that east and west can learn to live together. Let’s hope so.
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