After a hiatus of five years since The Man Who Cried, Sally Potter is back with Yes, a nicely packaged love affair between an American female scientist (Joan Allen) and a Lebanese doctor (Simon Abkarian) who works as a chef in London. Potter says in her press notes that she wrote Yes in response to 9/11 and the ‘rapid demonisation of the Arabic world in the West to the parallel wave of hatred against America.’ Her response translated into the romantic attachment between the two protagonists as a metaphor for the complicated relationship between the West and the Middle East.
Potter is a prodigious talent – she can dance, sing, direct movies and make them look and sound good – but Yes would have required more intellectual depth than technical proficiency. It lacks sophisticated ideas. The film never goes on beyond the clichés, which is strange since her intention seems to be shedding light on the misunderstanding between two different cultures. For example, often when Abkarian’s Lebanese man (the characters have no names)appear in the film, the soundtrack breaks into some ‘ethnic’ music as if his moustache and slicked back curly hair were not enough to denote he is Middle-Eastern. Allen’s character is also very stereotypically Western bourgeois. She is ‘repressed’, her marriage to an English politician (Sam Neill) as cold as the minimalist tomb they live in.
But Potter is a competent artist, and the film is saved by its lush cinematography, which reverbs with light tension, and she employs Brechtian distantiation (Verfremdungseffekt) techniques with mixed results: the Minnie Mouse-voiced Shirley Henderson plays a cleaner who talks to the camera, commenting on what’s happening in the background, and injects some humour into the film. Another peculiarity of the film is that the dialogues are mostly delivered in rhymes (which can be irritating as well).
Perhaps the major mistake is to centre this potentially good and intelligent film around a love story. Love stories and relationships have been so overused that they seem to have lost their metaphorical power. Despite all this, Yes is still to be recommended – though mainly for Potter’s credentials as an auteur and her willingness to experiment rather than the film itself.