This newest film by Sally Potter proves one thing: if you’re going to write your script in rhymed couplets, you’d better make sure that as a versifier you come closer to Shakespeare than to Ogden Nash doggerel. Some of Potter’s would-be poetry comes closer to pop song lyric than to the profundity she intends. It’s difficult not to smile, for instance, as one line ends “when loves dies,” and you think to yourself that it might just have easily have copied Prince by concluding with “when doves cry.” Verse of less than the highest quality can be used to sublime artistic effect, of course; one need only think of Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” as an example. But in that case John Shade’s poem beginning the novel (and serving as the basis for Charles Kinbote’s hilariously–and poignantly–self-centered commentary that followed) was intended as a satire of Robert Frostian mediocrity. In the present case, Potter has no such comic goal. This feeble stuff is actually meant to be taken seriously. (It’s also hard to show great deference for a writer who uses “infer” when she means “imply.”)
And what does this misguided attempt at poetic dialogue serve? A story of adultery supposedly redeemed by a socio-political subtext that wallows in liberal guilt. The simply-styled She (Joan Allen)–can’t you feel how not giving her a name makes her a symbol of the whole benighted west?–is a world-renowned molecular biologist trapped in a sterile marriage to Anthony (Sam Neill), a British politician. It’s not just his neglectful attitude, however, that blights their life together; it’s the fact that he’s become too pragmatic and accommodationist in his approach to issues of global import, while she–though having moved far from the principled leftism of the down-to-earth Irish aunt (Sheila Hancock) who brought her up, and whom she doesn’t visit as often as she should–retains a lingering sense of right and wrong that he appears to have lost. It’s not surprising, therefore, that she should find the friendly attentions of He (Simon Abkarian), a Lebanese waiter–actually a doctor forced into such reduced circumstances by the prejudices of the country he’s immigrated to–and before long they’re engaged in a torrid affair. But their relationship is tested by his need to return to his war-torn homeland to put his talents to use there (and by his knowledge that she, and the rest of the culture to which she belongs, look down upon him as inferior), while she is moved by the death of her beloved aunt to abandon her comfortable upper-class life and flee to Cuba, which her aunt glorified as a workers’ paradise. The question remains: will they ever be able to overcome the cultural divide and get together?
This central love story, however, isn’t all Potter uses to enunciate her big pronouncements. She includes a sub-plot involving the woman’s god-daughter (Stephanie Leonidas), to whom, in one of the film’s few incisive scenes, Anthony pours out his side of things (although the undercurrent of attempted seduction is decidedly uncomfortable). She also offers subsidiary characters that act as a sort of Greek chorus to the events. There are three kitchen workers (Gary Lewis, Will Johnson and Raymond Waring) at the restaurant where the Lebanese man works, who argue over religion and politics and represent the general level of untutored bigotry which he has to confront; and, even more importantly, a housemaid (Shirley Henderson), who repeatedly points out, in direct-to-the-viewer monologues, the filthy underpinnings of the unhappy couple’s empty upper-class marriage (and the society it represents)–just in case we’re so dense that we couldn’t figure out for ourselves that Potter feels a full-scale cultural act of purification is needed. Her dramatic solution? A Muslim and a lapsed Irish Catholic wind up in a communist paradise talking about God.
Though this stuff is likely to strike you as banal and obvious even if you’re on the same political wavelength as Potter, it must be admitted that an estimable cast gives the material its best shot. Allen provides another of her patented turns as a woman whose outward steeliness masks emotional turmoil within, and Abkarian proves a magnetic presence; their intimate scenes together generate considerable heat, if not a great deal of light. In some ways Neill is even better, creating a portrait of a tortured figure who might–given the almost antiseptic atmosphere with which Potter and her cinematographer Alexei Romanov have surrounded him–have stepped out of “Eyes Wide Shut.” Hancock manages to make the aunt less absurd a writer’s convenience than she should by rights appear to be, and Leonidas transcends her character’s limitations as well. Unfortunately, the usually reliable Henderson tends to overitalicize her lines–less her fault, perhaps, than that of the writing and direction.
And ultimately it’s Potter one has to blame for the fact that “Yes” is, verbally and intellectually, both crushingly pretentious and oddly silly–rather like the cinematic equivalent of Jack Handey’s “Deep Thoughts,” but without the saving grace of intentional humor. Ultimately you may feel that one of Henderson’s pearls of wisdom serves as a good commentary on Potter’s effort. “We never die,” she says, “we leave a mess–a stain.” In the present case, that’s unhappily true.