Gender and politics mix in arty, arid new indie
Directed by Sally Potter
Cast: Joan Allen, Sam Neill
British writer/director/ composer/actress/--heck, let's just call her "filmmaker"—Sally Potter (Orlando, The Tango Lesson, The Man Who Cried) returns with another languid rumination on sex and love. This one is set squarely in the post-9/11 world and concentrates on a talky affair between an Irish-American scientist and a Middle Eastern chef.
Acclaimed actress Joan Allen (The Bourne Supremacy, Off the Map, Face/Off, Nixon), subbing quite well for Potter in front of the camera, plays the film's female protagonist—identified only as "She." She is stuck in a loveless, quicksand-filled marriage with suit-and-tie-wearing philanderer Anthony (Sam Neill). One night, at a party, she meets a handsome and charming Lebanese man, referred appropriately enough to as "He" (Simon Abkarian, Ararat). He calls her “a beauty” and “a queen” and a few other things that only sound good when spoken with an accent. Not so surprisingly, He and She begin a passionate affair.
There's a little bit of backstory. He was a fleet-fingered surgeon before fleeing Beirut. Now he's a disillusioned chef chopping parsley in pan-ethnic London. She's a genetic scientist, adept at reducing life to its most basic components. Although raised in America, she was born in Belfast--which is obviously meant to imply some sort of connection between war-torn, terrorist-filled Northern Ireland and the war-torn, terrorist-filled Middle East. Honestly, I'm not sure what the connection is or what it has to do with our main characters. Something about all of us getting along. Or not getting along. Or whatever. But I do feel confident that Potter is trying to imply something important and weighty to her audience about sexual politics. Or political sex. Or whatever.
Supervising, after a sort, this adulterous union between He and She is a philosophical, grime-obsessed maid known as The Cleaner (squeaky-voiced Shirley Henderson from Bridget Jones' Diary and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets). Serving as a one-woman Greek chorus, she pops up occasionally, offering the audience a whispering commentary on the detritus--both physical and emotional--of modern married life. Stained sheets tell a story, she reminds us. There's no such thing as “spotless,” she observes. If God gave us eyes to see every detail, we'd go mad for staring at the bugs and germs and viruses that surround us, she notes. At one point, she even wonders if the title “cosmetic artist” or “dirt consultant” might better suit her.
As if that weren't enough artful pretense, it must be noted that all the dialogue in the film is spoken in rhymed couplets. Actually, it's not as distracting as it would seem. It took me five or 10 minutes before I even realized what was making the dialogue sound just slightly “off.” The actors race through the film's iambic pentameter with accomplished ease, delivering it like practiced Shakespearean thesps ... or at least like characters in an R-rated Dr. Seuss book.
Admittedly, the film plays--at times--more like an overly poetic, slightly pretentious art piece than a linear cinematic story. Our unnamed lovers meet at various points in time and various places on the map, engaging in all sorts of fevered ... conversations. Topics range from stem cell research to terrorism to religion to love to body image issues to the very existence of God. Though the film centers, more or less, on a string of adulterous liaisons, there's really only the dreamy suggestion of sexuality. Potter curtails nearly every moment of sweat and skin in favor of lovers posed in painterly postcoital repose. For good or bad, Yes is all talk and no action.
The film is a lovely affair, to be sure. Potter follows her players around the globe, observing such exotic destinations as London, Beirut and Havana. Studiously shot in a variety of formats, the film becomes a formal collage of image and word--daring and high-minded but a little too well-mannered.
If you're a middle-aged female college graduate who listens to NPR and has a degree in world literature, this is probably the film for you. You'll find it smart and sensual and fresh and terribly, terribly deep. If you're not female, don't listen to NPR and don't have a degree in world literature, you're far more likely to find Potter's latest discourse on gender politics pretty, but far too posed.