Yes

12/12/2010

U.K. / 2004 / English

Directed by Sally Potter

With Joan Allen, Simon Abkarian, Sam Neill

Still from 'Yes'She is an American scientist living in a marriage that is brimming with regret, he is an immigrant from Lebanon who works behind the scenes in a classy restaurant, and one night at a gala dinner or fundraiser of some sort their paths converge. He comes onto her with laughable swiftness but, being in the right place at the right time, gets her to accompany him quite willingly into an affair. Sally Potter’s Yes is a film that persistently reminds us of the dramatic veil that it casts over the contemporary world, replete with stereotypes and fantasies. The dialogue is spoken in iambic pentameter, and the proscenium of the cinematic frame is presented more as the stage that it surely is than an honest window into life. But even as the characters speak in breathless rhymes, exchanging and matching each other’s words with panache, there is a more forceful dialogue going on underneath, one that examines how we communicate and identify with one another, and how these activities become convoluted by the artificial sense of the world imposed on us by society’s many dissonances.

The two lovers speak to each other in poetic lines about numbers and cosmos. We do not see their lovemaking, where dominance can be expressed through bodily restraint. We watch them in the minutes afterward, while they ruminate and savor desire, their inequalities teased out in their measured exchanges rather than in their unthinking fulfillment. The film begins with her marriage at the brink of falling apart. She knows her husband, a closed off and wealthy sufferer of a midlife crisis, to philander. She works as a stem-cell researcher, often flying between America and her home in London. This contrasts with the decidedly more modest existence of her lover, whose sensual, umber-carpeted apartment looks so warm compared to her immaculate, minimalist mansion. He was a surgeon in Lebanon, where the overbearing presence of political violence caused him to leave and more or less start anew in Europe. She is compelled to defend the ethics of her work and maintain a sense of her principles in terms of abstract concepts, while he, who has also faced ethical issues of life and death, had to do so in the concrete world, strained by the ambiguity and the morally ruinous conditions of war.

The experiments with frame rate, most of which come early in the film, are redolent of the multiplicity of each moment, the layered realities that overlay one another to sculpt time itself. This theme of how diverging perceptions coalesce, unbeknownst to us, to create what we think of as real, is a theme that informs the film’s content and philosophy. The lovers’ views become tangled in conversation, but they try hard all the while not to allow any fusing to occur, so absorbed are they in themselves. One will not make an effort to see things the way the other does. And yet the reason they became united in the first place was to shock their bodies out of such practices, to identify with the unfamiliar and that which has been sealed off from them. We get the idea that he has previously thought of western women as objects of fantasy, and that she tries not to think of his foreignness as important to his attractiveness or physicality. It is not addressed whether or not this relationship is a first for either of them, but we would like to imagine that it is, for the weight that it would carry in that case.

Denying one another’s reality in a sort of reverse idealization, each of them wants to construct the other as that which they know the other is not, and in a way that they think they should. Almost from the beginning there is a tension between them, with she wanting to see him as backward and misogynistic, and he wanting to see her as disingenuously tolerant and condescending. Their desire to identify ignorance in one another reflects the frightening void with which each of them deals, a difficulty in dealing with the travesties that the world parades in an assembly line, in front of which they feel powerlessness above hope or affection for others. She tries rather ineffectually to look at her experience in parallel with his, the emotional scars of Ireland, where she was born, with the trauma that has molded his life. For his part, he is a fountain of analysis regarding the society in which he currently lives, maintaining a degree of integrity by not being won over, but also failing to rewind and analyze why it is that he hates it. She wants to deny that she could hate anything truly, so benumbing is her sense of relativism. The resulting conflict, building up underneath the denial of how they are connected and where they are at odds, boils over to a downdressing for both, until they are at their shapely, skeletal cores, each reborn but by that time too afraid of the other to give a parting glance.

Still from 'Yes'The Shakespearean comparison does not begin and end with the metered dialogue; some of the ways in which the film deals with alterity are rooted in similar western dramatic traditions. Things are framed by direct, intimate soliloquies by the couple’s maid, whose manner is sly and sexualized in an upstairs-downstairs way. She speaks to the audience like a Greek chorus, offering an insider’s guide to the lives and intentions of the rich people. While giving her the integral function of speech and critique, Potter is at the same time recognizing the woman’s subaltern status by keeping her focus centered on the privileged employers who don’t seem to be aware of her presence. The maid’s speeches pivot on the connectedness of all things, an idea of the broadest scope that she renders from an obsessive fascination with the tiniest of human remnants: the dust mites and fallen particles of skin. This isn’t a basic oneness suggested by one or two shared qualities, an abstract belief that thoughtlessly binds the universe, but a given – by their very existence, by all their molecules, things are part of the same picture – and a provocation; we are shown the impossibility of denying the physical world as the place where we converge with all other matter.

In framing the cultural conflict of the two lovers in a backdrop of local (albeit transglobal) issues of agency and social stratification, Potter is both emphasizing his and her outer similarities as well as hinting at the notion that their supposed differences are based in geopolitical struggles that actually have little to do with individuals. Indeed, it would seem so many defining and seemingly undying battles – the West against Islam, puritanism against tolerance, homogeneity against pluralism – are between haves against have-nots, endlessly recurring in new manifestations. The resultant divisions between people, which seem ideological to them, are themselves perversions of the whole fabric, road blocks that are tragic, mysterious, and savagely unavoidable. So only through a willful recognition of their interconnectedness can people transcend them, and Potter tries to imagine a realization of this.

As a meditation on 9/11, the film makes itself a sort of butterfly net clumsily held up to the breeze, recalling that event by capturing and looking at discussions and catalysts of awareness that were kicked up in its wake, many of which have been airborne ever since. And it does essentialize these conflicts and self-examinations, largely because that is a natural response to new complexity. But she does this not to marginalize or treat dismissively the issues we think about now, but to situate them in a broader spectrum of discord that is older and ongoing. Potter has the tryst take place in an environment perpetually serviced by well-nigh invisible proletarian figures, to whom she gives, in a nod to recognizing the agency which she largely fails to impart, the direct gaze. One may be reminded of the affair in Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989), from which the wait staff and kitchen workers dutifully avert their eyes, stay silent, only to reclaim look of definition and ownership by inverting it upon the powerful. Here that look, partially devolved from the writer-director herself, is not beseeching but rather, is knowing, penetrating, and blankly decimated. The maid being the primary observer is like the laborers’ monologues in Godard’s Weekend (1967), albeit poetic and not directly political.

Still from 'Yes'Partly what makes the film compelling is its twofold process, not only provoking analysis of a great many problems but also consciously problematizing its own, admittedly privileged vantage point. Potter makes the film’s central notion – on the oneness of people – abundantly clear, and simultaneously points out how she hasn’t the right to hold forth on it. This self-reflexivity is the product of a sense of egalitarianism, causing the clichés she uses in representing the working class to fall short of condescension, but only just. They are still receptacles for meanness and prejudice, but no more so than the rich and worldly. The Lebanese man’s coworkers in the kitchen each think of women in a different way, as temptations, victims, or toys, respectively. Resisting the foundation of heartlessness in this pluralistic society, he feigns superiority over such attitudes, choosing politeness instead. But that politeness destroys any transcendence, for behind it he holds up his lover as a symbol of all that is bad in the West, fearing her when she doesn’t conform to it.

Even if it seems as though Potter is shoehorning perhaps too many peripheral themes into the story (the god-daughter’s problems with self-image; the husband’s more banal, more personal infidelity; etc.) nothing that is important gets derailed by them. She works these things into the central narrative in order to build a certain milieu in which the viewer has room to exercise a sense of morality, something that is current with the metaphorically touched-upon themes (the implications) and correlates with intersecting realities that are felt as vibrations through the characters. An anchor of conscience for Joan Allen’s character is her Auntie, a staunch Irish communist who is now dying in hospital. The slipping away of this figurehead in her life signals an opening up of her own consciousness, no longer relying on a surrogate to hold onto valuable humanist principles for her. This old woman, out of any of the tangential characters who fall into the female protagonist’s orbit, offers the most insight into the overall learning that she experiences.

Film morality consists partly of that which is explained and that which is concealed (and is the inverse of the real-world binary wherein lies are the most damaging things to society and truth the most useful), the latter marked by the possibility of realization and the former with no such possibility. That Potter imbues her discourse with a studied translucency, devoting as much attention to the personal limitations of the characters as to the limitations inherent in representing them, she is a bit unlawful in terms of being a filmmaker (and thus more open to derision on the part of those championing the sanctity of artifice, for whom the perspectives posed in Yes may seem myopic, saccharine, roughly and reflexively drawn) but she is certainly not immoral. Like an outlaw whose calling is beyond the ethical precariousness of her stock in trade, or judgment by established systems, she summons, quite knowingly, the paradoxes afflicting our deeply held understanding of things.

Since she alights on personal conflicts rather than public, Potter is offering an expanded take on modern storytelling, integrating stylization and platitudes about culture and conformity (ones that were already platitudes in 2004) in the interest of positioning it closer to the root of that which she wants the freedom to behold, the pressing and inevitable symptoms of discord that cast their imposing shadows over conscious human beings. And although we feel like separate bodies flung through space, it is our moments of intersection, made all the more intense by the isolation of social boundaries, that give us glimpses of the world as it really is, run through the filters of infinite variations of experience.

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