Judge Joe Armenio has never written a blurb in blank verse, and he's not about to start now.
Our reviews of Yes: Keys To Ascension (published December 24th, 2009), Yes: Yesspeak (published February 19th, 2004), Yes: Symphonic Live (Blu-ray) (published October 8th, 2011), Yes: The New Director's Cut (published September 17th, 2008), and Yes: Yesspeak (published June 11th, 2011) are also available.
And, in the end, it simply isn't worth
Sally Potter's Yes is one of the more explicit cinematic responses to the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Anglo-American war in Iraq. While many cineastes have chosen to embed their ideas in allegories (Lars Von Trier) or genre pieces (any number of American sci-fi and crime films; Spielberg's War of the Worlds comes to mind as an example), Potter lays it all on the line, all but inviting charges of didacticism and heavy-handedness with her story of the affair between an Irish-American scientist living in London (Joan Allen, The Upside of Anger) and a Middle Eastern refugee (Simon Abkarian, Almost Peaceful). What's more, she's written the screenplay in rhyming blank verse, a daring choice that's bound to offend critics hooked on "realism."
Facts of the Case
The lovers are identified only as "He" and "She." "She" is married to Anthony (Sam Neill, The Piano), a politician who prides himself on his "control," and their marriage must be among the chilliest in the long history of chilly movie marriages; we barely see them together, and when we do, they are either silent or unflinchingly hostile. "He" was trained as a doctor in Beirut, but fled the political strife there and works as a chef, until he loses his job for getting in fights with nativist co-workers. She was born in Belfast, a point which she keeps repeating to establish her political bona fides, out of guilt for her own privileged status as a wealthy American, although she avoids her dying Irish aunt, who is a too-powerful reminder of her past and the political strife that she has escaped. Allen and Abkarian meet, sparks fly, sex is had, and then there are obstacles and cultural complications. Subplots, some better integrated into the main story than others, include She's relationship with her teenage goddaughter (Stephanie Leonidas, MirrorMask) and the death of her Irish aunt (Sheila Hancock, Love and Death on Long Island).
So why the blank verse? On one level, it's an exercise in voluntary limitation, an attempt to spark creativity by imposing artificial rules. It's also a Brechtian device, a way of lifting viewers out of the story, reminding them that they're watching a consciously crafted work of art, with its own ideas and point of view, and not simply a captured slice of reality. The occasional stiltedness of the dialogue (and this stiltedness is only occasional and subtle; Potter makes the lines sound as naturalistic as possible, only hinting at the structure beneath) also accentuates the formal, artificial nature of the upper-class world in which Allen and Neill's characters reside, and its race, class, and gender hierarchies; these are also visually conveyed through scenes set in forbiddingly severe interior spaces. Most of the writing is quite good, and one set piece, Sheila Hancock's internal deathbed monologue, is truly majestic. He and She's amorous wine bar exchange is intended to be another bravura passage, but sounds like a passage from a breathless, high-toned romance novel, intoned with a deadly humorlessness. Their breakup scene, in which they deal with the cultural gulf that separates them, is also an important scene, intended to do much of the film's ideological heavy lifting, but it also didn't work for me. The scene is intended as a brutally honest look at the intersections between the personal and global, but their exchange of banal insults manages to be neither politically nor psychologically insightful.
Potter's ambition is admirable, but it seems that she's occasionally bitten off more than she can chew; a number of Big Issues are mentioned, as if to prove that the director knows of their existence, but then dropped without much development. The work that Allen's character does is related to abortion, we learn early on, but the subject is then discarded and never brought up again; her goddaughter, Grace, like many young women, deals with a nonexistent weight problem, but the character is so sketchily drawn that it's hard to understand why it's even brought up. Surprisingly enough, the character who's captured most effectively, with wryly incisive bits of captured behavior, is Anthony, who has an improbable fondness for blues music, which expresses the emotion that this buttoned-up white man can't bear to let loose himself. In another scene, he awkwardly confides in Grace about his marital troubles. No salacious intent is implied; he's just lonely. Perhaps because Potter doesn't especially care about Anthony, she's able to let his character emerge with such gradual, subtle gestures, while the other, more important figures are drawn a bit too urgently.
Potter has a nice eye for composition, and a bag of stylistic tricks that she uses in varied ways: He and She's first walk in the park is filmed entirely in long shots, creating in the viewer a tension between the beauty of the surroundings, the joy of a budding love affair, and the sense of distance and foreboding that comes from seeing things at such a distance. Arguments between Allen and Neill are mostly filmed with a still, objective camera in the couple's forbiddingly clean house. Frequent monologues to the camera by their maid (Shirley Henderson, Bridget Jones' Diary) remind us both of the "invisible" labor on which their privileged lives are based, and the fallacy of pretending that both this labor, and the dirt which it eradicates, are really invisible. She points out that cleaning is just moving dirt around, not eliminating it, an idea that jibes nicely with Potter's larger political and metaphysical position, that every action in every life matters, makes an ineradicable mark.
The transfer on the Sony DVD is fine, as is the Dolby Digital 5.1 Sound, although occasional bits of dialogue sound a bit muffled, and it's inevitable that some lines are lost because of the density of the script (the scenes in the kitchen where Abkarian's character works are also a bit difficult to make out sometimes, because of the varied and thick accents of his co-workers). So it's a little disappointing that French but not English subtitles are provided. The only extra is a good one, a half-hour behind-the-scenes film called "Finding Scene 54," about the attempt over many weeks to shoot the important scene in which Allen and Abkarian's characters express the gulf between them. Unlike most of the sloppily edited behind-the-scenes footage I've seen recently, this featurette actually tells a story, and bothers to identify the people we're watching; we get a good sense of Potter's quietly authoritative style and the economic difficulties of making such a noncommercial film. There's also an emotional rehearsal sequence which makes plain the importance of this project to both director and actors.
Yes, with its rather didactic treatment of class, race, and gender issues, could easily be dismissed as a tiresome exercise in liberal guilt and wish-fulfillment, and the film's ending, which seems more than a little arbitrary and evasive, is solid evidence for that assertion. But I think it would be wrong to dismiss the film because of its faults. Yes is intellectually ambitious, passionate, and flawed; would you rather watch a movie that aspires to something, or one that's boringly beyond criticism?
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Scales of Justice
• "Finding Scene 54" Featurette
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