Yes (2005): Sally Potter’s Pretentious and Frustrating Tale, Starring Joan Allen

With varying degrees of success, Sally Potter, the British experimental director, has been trying to push the boundaries of narrative film in the periphery of mainstream cinema.

Her latest, “Yes,” is an ambitious but dissatisfying and frustrating exercise on any number of levels. Though personal, centering as her last work, “The Tango Lesson,” on an unfulfilled middle-aged woman yearning for sex and love (Potter’s alter-ego), the film is a mess, both structurally and stylistically.

Nonetheless, despite the fact that it never finds the right tone, in moments, “Yes” achieves lyrical beauty and poignancy through its restless, searching mode.

Full of contradictions, “Yes” aims to be at once intellectual and emotional story, personally touching and politically engaged, a commentary on a specific marriage that’s also meant to embody all bourgeois unions, individualized characters that also function as political symbols. It’s hard to take seriously any film in which the lead characters are named He and She).

There’s also the problem of an inconsistent and arbitrary visual style, with the gifted cinematographer Aleksei Rodionov attempting visual elegance. Perhaps more importantly, the film uses bad grammar intentionally, as an antidote to a stylized and fatuous dialogue delivered in a pseudo-Shakespearean iambic pentameter.

Joan Allen (seen this year to better results in the indie “Off the Map” and the comedy “The Upside of Anger”) plays a character named She, an Irish American microbiologist American living in London, suffocated in a marriage to a wealthy politician (Sam Neill) who cheats on her, clearing the way for She to embarks on an extramarital affair with a Lebanese chef named He. Do women still need an excuse to engage in illicit affairs I thought these times were over.

One evening, Anthony escorts his wife to a diplomatic banquet where a handsome Middle Eastern maitre d’ (Simon Abkarian, who appeared in “The Truth About Charlie” and “Almost Peaceful”) flirts with her. She surprises herself and says “yes,” when the headwaiter asks for her phone number. We’re led to believe that one simple and short word can change lives in a radical, even fatal way.

She is both flattered and bewildered by the stranger’s attention; clearly she hasn’t been the object of sexual desire for a long time. When the duo meet in a blooming London park, they speak poetically and nostalgically about their pasts: ‘He’ about Beirut’s sensuous apricot, ‘She’ of Ireland’s potatoes.

In the course of their liaison, He and She explore personal anxieties, sexual yearnings, and practically every existential and political issue that plagues alert individuals in our troubled time, including science, spirituality, religion, philosophy, East versus West, First World versus Third World, all of which in a 100-minute movie!

Studying human embryos and microscopic germs, She works in a sterile lab that stands in sharp opposition to He’s working environment, with its multi-racial composition and vocal arguments, and living quarters, which displays vibrant colors. It’s therefore both strange and unfortunate that the passion between He and She is portrayed in a cold, studied way, with each frame artfully arranged and carefully composed for the camera.

One encounter about Middle East politics becomes particularly resonant in the wake of the recent events in London. But the poetry is often painfully bad, as when She declaim, “I did not mean to infer that you were overlarge!” Allen and Abkarian try to handle Potter’s verse with dexterity, and occasionally their speeches touch a nerve, but, overall, it’s a losing proposition.

It doesn’t help that the secondary characters are all ciphers, allotted one or two scenes. As the husband, Neil has one solo bit, where he gets to play his air guitar to old rock tunes, but otherwise is saddled with a toss-away subplot that involves She’s goddaughter (Stephanie Leonidas). Relegated to the thankless role as the self-centered, uncaring husband, Neil is a career politician who seems to have plenty of time to sit around the house and get drunk.

The supporting characters in the kitchen scenes, Billy (Gary Lewis), Virgil (Wil Johson) and Whizzer (Raymond Waring), come across as mouthpieces of a Greek chorus. In the course of one superficial argument, He loses his job defending his way of life against racist remarks.

The last reel is particularly weak. Having separated after an argument, She, made to feel guilty about neglecting her sickly aunt (Sheila Hancock), takes a trip to Belfast and visits the dying woman at the hospital. A Communist, the aunt delivers one of the film’s most poignant monologues, that Potter sets to silence, after which, the suddenly politicized She embarks on a weirdly digressive journey to Cuba, where the story ends. He of the Middle East and She of the West meet in Cuba to cultivate their affair more freely more candidly more politically It’s up to us to choose the right possibility.

“Yes” is framed by voice-over narration addressed directly to the audience by the wealthy couple’s maid (a kittenish Shirley Henderson, who was in “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason” and “Intermission”), who relates how dirty sheets hold dirty secrets. She reveals Anthony’s naughty deeds, while fishing out a used condom from the toilet. But the maid’s discourse on germs and viruses and the sordidness of life doesn’t mesh at all with Potter’s central themes of religion, politics, racism and love. Ultimately, her character, as the ever-watchful housekeeper and film’s all-seeing eye, doesn’t work, showing, more than anything else, a director who’s unable to shape her material.

Abkanian, in his first English-speaking role, creates a likable and richly nuanced character of a prominent surgeon, who was forced to give his career up to become a London chef. He gives a particularly impassioned and credible performance. Allen, however, renders a sharply uneven performance, a result of her incoherent role, with as many convincing as unconvincing notes.

Potter’s reaction to 9/11 began as an experimental five minute short, and perhaps should have stayed a short. Its evolution into “Yes,” a film about two lovers from opposite cultures, has been written in iambic pentameter (the poetic structure used by Shakespeare). Potter packs too much into what’s means to be an elegantly spare story.

With the exception of “Orlando” (still her most accomplished film), Potter has always expresses her ideas better visually than verbally. This was certainly the case of “The Tango Lesson,” in which Potter herself starred as an older, not particularly attractive woman who gets involved with an exotically handsome younger man. In “Yes,” however, Potter uses a variety of film techniques, slowing down or speeding up the action, and mixing the different mediums of film, video and closed circuit TV, but the style is arbitrary and has distracting and distancing effect.

“Yes” is intriguingly scored by Gustavo Santaolalla (“21 Grams”), Kronos Quartet and the instantly recognizable Philip Glass (“The Hours”). Some of the film’s individual elements are intriguing but they don’t add up to a coherent whole. Potter succumbs to the use of slow motion and other tricks, giving the whole endeavor the precious and precocious aura of a pretentious art film.

At film’s end, the maid confides that germs and viruses are never gone, just moved around, so nothing is ever truly spotless. As humans, we tend leave a mess when we depart places or relationships, but in “Yes,” it’s Potter who has left us with a messy picture. One respects Potter’s willingness to take risks in a bold experiment. Nonetheless, intellectual ambitions and artistic pretensions don’t necessarily add .

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