Yes (2004)

Yes first published by Movie Gazette, 27 June, 2005

Whether it is Mike Nichols’ tight focus on lovers’ first advances and final splits in Closer (2004), or John Curran’s exclusive concentration on the awkward middle years in We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2005), whether it is François Ozon’s use of five reverse-order episodes to deconstruct a lengthy marriage in 5×2 (2004), or Michael Winterbottom’s encapsulation of a year-long affair with just sex scenes and concert footage in 9 Songs (2004), in cinema’s most recent erotic dramas it is more than just the characters who have been stripped bare. Yet if reducing narratives to their essentials has become the missionary position in today’s films about adult relationships, then Sally Potter’s Yes is a notable, and venerable, exception to the rule – for here an intimate affair is opened up to all manner of supposedly external influences – issues of race, gender, religion, philosophy and class – until the body has merged completely with the body politic, making love seem no longer like something simple or reducible.

She (Joan Allen) is an Irish-born American, an atheist, and a jet-setting molecular biologist, merely keeping up appearances in her chilly marriage to philandering English politician Anthony (Sam Neill). He (Simon Abkarian) is a Lebanese-born man of faith, a skilled surgeon who has wound up as an impoverished immigrant chef in London. After He makes Her smile at one of Her husband’s banquets, they arrange to meet again, and are soon weaving a blanket of words and limbs in which to seek refuge together from their troubles – but it is not long before the pressures of the outside world begin to weigh upon them, and He leaves Her. She, still grieving the death of Her beloved Communist aunt (Sheila Hancock), invites Him to meet Her in a land of revolution, resistance and passion, hoping beyond hope that He will change His mind (and the world) by saying “yes”.

In case anybody fails to grasp the Shakespearean quality of this tale of star cross’d lovers, Potter has composed all the dialogue in iambic pentameters, and allows a cleaner (Shirley Henderson), barely noticed by the principal players around her, to soliloquise now and then straight to camera on the broader (indeed, the metaphysical) implications of the mess in which her employers, and everyone else, find themselves. While this all may sound annoyingly contrived on paper, on screen it translates into something rich and strange. Potter’s blank verse comes, not unlike that of the Bard or of a contemporary rapper, with a colloquial earthiness (“I fuckin’ hate this shite, there ain’t no God / and if there is, he’s full of fuckin’ spite”), and so fluently and naturally is it delivered by the excellent cast that it is easy to forget altogether its artificial metricality – until yet another striking piece of assonance jolts the attention. The effect is a clash between stylisation and realism, poetry and the street, that matches the film’s many other tensions (man vs. woman, God vs. science, rich vs. poor, East vs. West, Capitalism vs. Communism) – all of which are projected onto the bodies of two people not sure whether they are lovers or enemies.

Conceived by Potter in the immediate wake of 9/11 as an attempt to dramatise, from both an erotic and a cosmic perspective, the seemingly irreconcilable divisions of the world, Yes is a hauntingly beautiful experiment without parallel in the history of cinema. Potter’s finest film to date, and one of the best of the year, it manages to be both positively life-affirming and profoundly melancholic at the same time. How could anybody say no?

strap: It is impossible to say no to this Shakespearean take on life and love in a post-9/11 world.

Anton Bitel