just saw sally potter’s Yes and i’m fairly blown away. i’m surprised no one has posted on it yet (though the ever reliable jeff mentioned it in an earlier post!). this is my first sally potter, so i won’t be able to put it in perspective, but what a film! it is decidedly striking, for one, that she should have chosen to have the whole damn thing in rhymed iambic pentameters, and that she wrote every damn word herself. since the delivery is not as crisp as if it had been on stage, and since a fair number of the actors have regional or foreign accents, i assume potter knew we would not be able to get everything. but the two leads, joan allen and simon abkarian, do a pretty splendid job of portraying their characters’ emotions, so whatever you miss in the diction comes through in the body language.

joan allen is a nameless wealthy american of irish origin (she lived in belfast till she was 10) who lives in london with her english husband (sam neill), while abkarian, whose character is also nameless, is a lebanese surgeon who, in england, works as a chef. the two fall in love and have a complicated affair. the complications of the affair result, atypically, not from the usual entaglements of husbands and double lives, but from the cultural differences between allen and abkarian. as a fair-skinned, blond american, allen portrays a character who, somewhat subverting gender roles, is single-mindedly and guiltlessly immersed in sex and love, while the delicate character abkarian portrays cannot detach himself from the political, moral, and personal implications of his love affair with a woman who embodies everything that denies his identity. while allen rhapsodizes about the delights of her lover’s body, abkarian tries to draw her into his world and culture, with scant success.

all this is complicated by the fact that allen is guilt-ridden over not visiting a dear, ailing, communist aunt who still lives in belfast. allen comes thus to represent individualist detachment from community values and social responsibility, something that eventually leads to a serious crisis between the two lovers.

potter shot the film in london, havana, the dominican republic, belfast, and lebanon around the time the US and england invaded iraq, and the shadow of this aggression hovers powerfully over the whole film, giving it a gravitas and poignancy that i found incredibly moving. as i said, it is particularly effective that the blithe and irresponsible one should be the woman, while abkarian is decidedly feminine in his sensitivity and hurt. this is done very subtly: neither is allen harsh or silly, nor is abkarian effeminate. to the contrary. but potter makes clear that we do carry with us the weight of the place our countries occupy on the chessboard of contemporary history, and, in the case of the blond american, confronting this weight requires some serious and painful work.

i loved that the film was in verse. this, and the amazing cinematography, make this very political love story an incredibly sensuous affair. this is not unconnected to the fact that abkarian is immersed in food all day — while, on the other hand, allen hardly ever eats, and her house is so spotless and spare it looks uninhabited.

i think the sensuousness of the movie steers potter away from the murky waters of an overly ideological film, while it is indeed refreshing that political identities should be represented as the stuff of life and love. i love, in other words, that this should be a political love story, and that the political tragedy of wars and terrorism should be played on the bodies of these two tender, passionate lovers.

21 thoughts on “Yes!”

  1. oh, i care about the film, gio, i just don’t care about you.

    i haven’t seen it. it is on the queue after a lot of van damme titles.

  2. I thought this was a film about Thomas Carlyle. Ba dum pum. Where’s Peter Manning when I want a good rimshot? And now for my jokes about the Shelleys.

    But, hey, Joan Allen!

    I was planning to give this a shot–I liked Orlando a lot, and this sounded interesting, despite A. O. Scott’s dismissal of its pretension (a dismissal that made me very, very nervous about seeing it); your review, on the other hand, makes me want to bump it up my queue. A phrase which, come to think of it, sounds painful. Ahem. But it comes after R-Point and Red Eye, sorry.

  3. Gio . . . I miss you! Where’ve you been hiding. And the Pony too but he’s a bit more of an abstract construct. I watched Yes, or at least I watched as much as I could. I really wanted to like it, but I found it uninvolving. Why is that I wonder? Didn’t like her lover very much . . . the plot seemed a bit didactic and inert but there were moments of great style and verve. What to say . . . I wanted to be a fan. Oh Well. And I ocassionally visit Eggcarton but to no avail.

  4. I liked it a lot more than Jeff, and less than Gio. I’ll get the grating off my chest: too many angles, too many voiceovers, too many of the voiceovers stilted and disruptive rather than jarring and dissociating, too much Shirley Henderson. But, I’ll admit, on that last point I am biased, having a low British-woman-with-whiny-voice tolerance. (And hence my irritation with Howell. I keed, I keed.)

    But even those things often work; Henderson, playing a housecleaner for Allen & O’Neill, opens the film with some sly, witty discussion with the camera. This image–of “the help” discoursing on the meaning of events, or just reminding us of their presence (including one very nice bit where a woman sweeping a locker room suddenly turns to look at us)–ties into the film’s commitment to foregrounding, as Gio notes, the politics of everyday life. And it isn’t (usually) stilted or pretentious–it’s usually quite witty and precise.

    But what sells the film for me are the three leads, all of whom I loved. I expected Allen to move me; there’s a scene where she breaks down weeping over a relative’s death that … well, it’s cliched and you know it’s coming and it still resonates. She inhabits the politics, the emotions, the sensuality, the loss, the anxieties of aging… I look at this year’s nominated women and can’t help but wonder how the hell this non-caricature of an older woman got displaced by Dame Dench’s iteration of the sassy Golden Girl.

    But I loved Abkarian and O’Neill, too–both get a chance to dance, and such scenes usually strike me as exercises in the self-conscious performance of not-self-consciousness. But, like Allen, they ground the film’s aestheticized estrangements in a graceful, subtle physicality.

    I’m emphasizing performances because I wasn’t always as sold on the seamless connection of love and politics, as Gio was–I saw the seams, I guess, or just haven’t the generosity Gio does. But I still think it is a wonderful success as a film simply wanting to connect those two, at times uncomfortably teetering toward agitprop or melodrama, but that seemed awfully honest, rather than ineffective. I liked it.

  5. mike and jeff,

    what did you think of the poetry? what function did it serve?

    there are some films (david mamet comes to mind) that are meant to be stagey, and in which staginess is fine. Yes is a very self-conscious film, and i really liked that. i don’t want to do much with it at this time, but, again, it all comes back for me to women in, well, hollywood (i know sally potter is english, but whatever): you claim your place by putting a highlighter around your name. you cannot do the same thing the guys do, for all sorts of reasons, so you do it differently, and intentionally draw attention to your difference. then you sit back and suck it up while critics tell you you are too self-conscious.

    has anyone accused lars von trier of being too self-conscious? i’m sure they have, but at the same time, we all respect him greatly (don’t we)?

    but i go on.

  6. Yeah–the Von Trier comparison is a good one; they are filmmakers similarly attentive to the technologies of film, which we could call self-conscious or Brechtian or whatever.

    But I’d go further–what I like about both of them is that, even as the aesthetic of the film calls attention to itself, they both encourage a kind of deep emotional engagement in their actors.

    I found the poetry lovely. But frankly I often forgot it was blank verse; is it self-conscious if I stop being conscious of it? Regardless, the spin on every word–the foregrounding of an aestheticized style–triggered often cool, sometimes jarring, and not-infrequent invisible inflections in what was being said. Like other elements of the film, the emphasis on the performative frame highlighted (to steal your word) the performance. I disagree with A.O. Scott’s critique of the poetry (or the film generally) as off-puttingly arty or pretentious; as I said, I often got lost in the talk, and stopped hearing the verse.

    I’m kind of interested in your point about the “highlighter” effect. Potter’s relationship to Hollywood is not just gendered, it’s extra-national and extra-industry… I stop and think about other directors who would fit very well into such a thesis (Julie Dash) and others who wouldn’t (Kathryn Bigelow, Penelope Spheeris) and others who I’m not sure (the Arnab-reviled Mira Nair). Do a post! Spin something out for us to chew on…

  7. I have not seen much of Von Trier–Zentropa, Breaking the Waves and Dogville. Dogville was a model of pretentious noodling—and the others seem to represent and inspired style rather stymied as to where to go–style is not integral but somewhat superficial. so, so far, I can’t say I’m a Von Trier fan but then, of course, there are many more of his films to see. but somehow even the pull of Catharine Deneuve did not impel me to see Dancer in the Dark, and the recent Manderlay, from the descriptions I am reading,sounds even less watchable than Dogville. If I want potboiler slavery allegory, rather than going the Brechtian route, I’ll go the road of Excess to Mandingo and Drum.

  8. Mmmm… cookies.

    Gio, I await your post on Obstructions; I saw that some while ago and liked it a lot (and a lot more than Dogville)….

  9. i’ve cleared cookies and files, but still don’t work. and it happens from two different computers that have nothing to do with each other. sorry, but post must wait till problem is solved!

    arnab, try to login as me. it’s still your horrible password.

  10. gio, i’m not sure why you’re having this problem–but turning on your own national soccer team seems like a strange way of dealing with it (which is not to say that i disagree with your trenchant analysis). what browser are you using on these computers? if explorer, download firefox and try that. (everyone should use firefox anyway.)

    trying clearing your cache and cookies one more time. explorer can be very unreliable in these, and other, matters.

  11. gio will be happy to hear that i finally watched this (but not before watching six johnny to films). she’ll be less happy to hear that i didn’t finally like it very much. i loved the first 6 minutes, thought i was going to love the whole thing but when at the 20 minute mark sunhee turned around and said “boooooring” i couldn’t disagree even though i wanted to (sunhee gave up at the one hour mark). it picked up again from time to time, and there were some fine scenes, but on the whole i like gio’s description of the film more than i liked the film itself. i did like the staginess and the rhyming but the relationship allegories got a bit much.

    out of guilt, and fear of gio, i’m still going to give it three stars on netflix.

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