The British indie filmmaker Sally Potter, a former dancer, lyricist, and performance artist, clearly has a taste for adventure. In 1992 that led her to Orlando, a screen adaptation of the experimental Virginia Woolf novel about an Elizabethan nobleman who hangs around for four hundred years, eventually morphing into a hip 20th-century woman; five years later, it fueled The Tango Lesson, a chancy collision of fact and fiction in which middle-aged British moviemaker “Sally” (played by Potter) takes up with Argentine tango dancer “Pablo” (played by dancer Pablo Veron). Potter’s tricky, multilayered films are definitely not for the Mr. and Mrs. Smith crowd.
Neither is Yes. A solemn political parable calculated for post-9/11 sensibilities, it is written and performed almost entirely in rhyming iambic pentameter — Shakespeare’s measure — and it means to tell us everything we need to know about love, war, God, and cross-cultural antagonism. Lords of Dogtown fans are advised to stay home and tune their skateboards. But even devotees of Romeo and Juliet, which Potter invokes again here, may find her poetic exertions a bit of a stretch and her geopolitical views highly theoretical.
The parties to the passionate, traumatic love affair in Yes are an American molecular biologist born in Northern Ireland (played by Joan Allen) and a displaced Lebanese surgeon (Simon Abkarian) now working in London as a line cook and waiter. In the interests of universality, we must suppose, Potter chooses not to provide her characters with names. Instead, she loads them down with enough psychological baggage to kill a couple of mules: “She” is disastrously married to an icy British politician (Sam Neill) and remains troubled by the Troubles in Belfast; “he” has been cut off from his homeland and his culture, reduced to slaving in a hot kitchen while he endures ethnic and religious slurs from moronic co-workers. Shades of House of Sand and Fog, without the compelling drama.
Why these two fall for each other is not very clear — except, perhaps, for the convenience of Potter’s morality play-in-the-making. Carrying a tray of hors d’oeuvres to a banquet table, the luxuriously mustached waiter presumes to flirt with the coolly elegant guest, and she presumes to respond. Two or three days later they’re madly in love, spouting Potter’s fractured 21st-century sonnets at each other and beginning to worry aloud about the state of world affairs and the demands of maintaining a relationship in a time divided by the separate but equally cruel agendas of East and West. After a brief period of carnal bliss, their big argument — impeccably versified, of course — is staged in a dark, soulless parking garage. It’s as if T.S. Eliot were the production designer.
Ever the neo-classicist, Potter insists on helping her troubled lovers — and us — along in the philosophy department. The film’s one-woman Greek Chorus takes the form of a housemaid (Shirley Henderson), who gazes into the camera as she changes soiled bedsheets, scrubs bathroom sinks, and speaks to us — ten trilling beats to the line — about, well, dirt. Her several disquisitions, I’m afraid, mean to be metaphorical — a running commentary on the nature of sin and the stubbornness of moral stain. One more syllable and you might want to stuff her head in the mop bucket.
Before all its anguished hand-wringing and rage and tortured poetry have subsided, we can’t help feeling that Yes is a kind of grad-school essay on power and the abuse of power. Although accomplished and worldly, the Joan Allen character is at a loss to define herself or find personal peace. Exiled and isolated, the Simon Abkarian character feels humiliated even by the woman he loves, because she personifies the regime that now dictates to the Middle East. Can they compromise? Can the twain meet? Is there hope for ethical reconciliation, personal or global? And by the way, does God exist?
These are big questions, adventurously but not very nimbly addressed — not even when “she” traipses off to Belfast for enlightenment, “he” back to his roots in Beirut, and the two of them wind up reuniting in Havana. Evidently, Havana is a neutral site, for the movie’s purposes at least, where competing ideologies can dissolve in the rapture of love. Happily, there’s no space left here to debate that assumption.
Enough. The longtime Potter faithful may be intrigued again by a forward-looking filmmaker’s daring (she always has plenty of that), but there’s something so precious and consciously literary about this whole enterprise that for many viewers it will seem more self–important than meaningful. As an alternative, why not read King Lear? It’s about power, too, and easier going.