Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()
There’s no such thing as nothing, not at all.
It may be really very, very small
But it’s still there. In fact I think I’d guess
That “no” does not exist. There’s only “yes.”
That’s from the end of Yes, the fourth film from writer/director Sally Potter and producer Christopher Sheppard. If you think I’ve given anything away, I haven’t. The line itself is pretty much meaningless out of context, and only slightly more sensible when you finally hear it; it’s more about the atmosphere than anything. No critic has ever really defined mise en scène, but the general idea of fusing words with visuals to evoke a unique sentiment in the viewer is powerfully used here by Potter. The whole thing’s written in verse, too, and comes off feeling as strong as Shakespeare (although Bill was never quite this comfortable dropping the f-bomb, and I don’t think Lady Macbeth ever got felt up under a dinner table). The line above, our exit, is spoken by the same character that brings us in at the beginning: the maid, known only as the Cleaner, played by Shirley Henderson. It’s her function as chorus that cements the feeling that we’re watching a play, and a pretty amazing one at that. Yes is a morality play where the morality is never clearly defined, a religious story that questions God’s existence, and a love story with genuine and confusing emotions. It’s not your typical afternoon at the cineplex.
Joan Allen plays She, an American woman living in England and trapped in a lifeless marriage to Anthony (Sam Neill). Anthony has an affair, and so She inevitably finds herself falling for the charms of He (Simon Akbarian), a chef she meets at a dinner party with her husband. He is a former surgeon from Beirut who fled to England after his surgery saved the life of a man who was subsequently murdered for being a terrorist. It’s the interplay between He and She, between an Arabic and Western upbringing, that drives the narrative and surprises us with some of the most honest conversations yet about the prejudices we hold for each other in a post-9/11 world. I don’t even like the phrase “9/11,” but it’s an inescapable term now, and that feeling permeates Yes: we live in a different world now, and it’s time we admit it.
And that’s the plot, as such: She and He sleep together and talk about their lives and the different issues they’re facing. He has some amazing conversations with the other three men who work in his kitchen: Billy, a Scot; Whizzer, a Brit; and Virgil, a Jamaican Christian (who often shouts, “Praise te Lard!”). The four men find common ground when discussing the sins of the West, but they turn on each other just as quickly. He has the worst of it, being Middle Eastern: throughout the movie, He struggles to come to grips with the realities of life in the Western world when he looks just like the terrorists. The dialogue flies fast and loose in these scenes, and the Scottish brogue is often tough to interpret, but the actors take an obvious joy from Potter’s verse, and it’s wonderful to watch.
She also struggles with her goddaughter, Grace (Stephanie Leonidas), a body-conscious teenager who winds up being the one person we see Anthony use as a confessor for his grief. Anthony plays the blues, literally: he often sits around or plays air guitar to B.B. King on the stereo. Anthony and She rarely speak, and when they do it quickly turns to an argument: She screams, Anthony leaves. It’s reminiscent of American Beauty, in its dysfunctional nuclear unit and marriage in shambles, but the mirror is pointed in a different direction: American Beauty made us look at ourselves, while Yes forces us to see the West in the context of global relations. And all in 100 minutes. Not bad.
She and He fall deeper into a tumultuous affair that we know will either face hard times or end badly; they never do anything else. In one tearful confrontation, He accuses She of only seeing his race, and his diatribes against the West’s position of power are frighteningly relevant: “You want to rule, / You want to spoil. / You want our land, / You want our oil.” The grace of the poetry makes all the old ideas seem new: by presenting them in a new way, Potter shows us the things we keep forgetting. It’s shot like a play, too, meaning that some scenes exist as long master takes. The conversations push the story and emotion, not the editing; think the exact opposite of Michael Bay and you’ll be on track. There’s a sense that we’re watching something being acted out, as well: there’s no way to make people forget you’re speaking in rhyme, although having characters admit they’re rhyming is an interesting way to push through the problem (at one point, He tells She, “I learned to rhyme in your language.”).
The Cleaner appears throughout to offer her take on things, and it’s these asides that create a sense of voyeurism, almost as if we’re listening to a friend tell us secrets we shouldn’t be learning. Dirt can never be removed, she says, only moved around. There’s no such thing as clean, and no such thing as nothing. There’s always something to life, and even as the characters fall apart and return to their former lives or sins, their isolation and relationships act as a warning to the viewer. Potter’s film is a plea for peace in the face of escalating war, an asylum from the madness of a culture that produces such horrors as Toby Keith’s lynching song “The Angry American.” We’re dangerously close, Potter tells us, to only looking at ourselves as skin colors. But the world is a lot tougher, and a lot more rewarding, than that.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Growing Bald.