From writer and director Sally Potter (of Orlando and The Tango Lesson fame) comes Yes. It could be called a poem — not because of Potter’s dialogue (although her characters don’t speak in “normal” cadence, but in rhymed iambic verse) — what makes the film a poem is its meditation on the state of world affairs: religion, politics, and science, sex and power.
Potter writes not from the head but from the heart. It’s not an essay, nor is it a “difficult” or “artsy” film. In fact, it’s quite approachable, with love and human interaction at its core.
Affairs of She and He
R for language, sexual content
The two lead characters are named by pronouns: She and He. They meet one night while He is working as a cook and She attends a ritzy party with her husband. He cannot believe that any man would leave a lovely woman such as her to navigate the party by herself, or so he boldly tells her. She is flattered by his words and piqued enough to take his card. They have a date. Their date becomes a fling, which turns into a full affair.
An “open marriage” is alluded to, but jealousy cannot be wished away by mere agreements. Bickering ensues. They both enlist the sympathy of their goddaughter; each one hoping she will take their side. Their last resort is trying not to be there when the other one comes home.
The only person in the film who sees their fight objectively and with detachment is their maid. The maid is not acknowledged by the characters, but she is always there. She even gets to look right at the lens and comment on the action, not unlike the chorus in the Grecian plays of old.
A Class Apart
The maid gives us a class perspective on the film’s dichotomies; a point of view that He is all too cognizant of, He a dark-skinned immigrant who’s often overlooked by Brits. The point is driven home when Potter shows us who He was before he came to England to find work. It’s not just She who made assumptions; Audiences, too, have probably judged He by his station, when in fact he’s quite a different man than who he first appeared.
The movie’s climax comes when She and He, inside a parking structure late one night, start arguing on politics and culture and on how it makes their own relationship more tense. Must immigrants be condescended to by native Westerners, He asks? Why should she pick up the tab, as though he’s not a man but just her whore? Let’s turn the tables, He proposes: Westerners aren’t looked upon as serfs where He comes from.
But there, She says, the argument stops working. Tables can’t be turned because in Arab lands strong women aren’t allowed. A scientist like She could not find work, respect, or friends. And that is why they’re here in Britain, not Beirut. The situation’s not symmetrical.
Outnumbering the Nos
There are no easy answers to be found in Potter’s film. It seems that asking painful questions is the point. Or maybe asking leads to talking, and through talking we connect. Perhaps connection is the “easy answer.” But in any case, these themes, along with Potter’s competence and great production values, are enough to earn the film a solid “yes.” The language of the film is gravy (or if you prefer “the icing on the cake”).
And so are all the great performances. Joan Allen takes control as She. Her strength might falter but it never fails. Abkarian, as He, is wonderful as well. He brings the requisite complexity to He, while hiding it beneath a humble mask when British expectations ask him to conform. Sam Neill doesn’t sell the cuckold husband quite as well as one might hope. Or maybe Neill’s character is not fleshed out as well in Potter’s script.
The most intriguing role, however, might just be the maid as played by Shirley Henderson. She starts and ends the film with monologues. She talks of dirt, and how there’s no such thing as “clean” (look closer and you’ll see.) But “small things live ‘cause bits of us are dead. Dirt never goes away, it just gets pushed around.” Your choice is seeing things the way they are or being happy living with a lie.
The film is not without its faults. The ending seems too long (or maybe it’s that there are half a dozen places where you think the film is going to end.) And as I said before, some characters aren’t quite as well portrayed or written as the leads.
But Yes has so much going for it that it’s hard call it “no” or “maybe.” Better call it “yes.”