Well Versed: Potter’s Poetic, Female-Centric Forbidden Tryst


With the recent spike in Iraq carnage, it may seem genteel to propose working through Muslim-West cultural tensions in the form of forbidden romance—in iambic pentameter no less. But we’re dealing with Sally Potter, whose films (Orlando, The Man Who Cried) demand leaps of faith and often reward them. In Yes, which unfurls entirely in verse, Joan Allen plays an Irish American biologist whose antiseptic work in blue-lit labs mirrors the icy vibe of her opulent London home. Her husband (Sam Neill) is a fatigued Blair-like politico who unwinds by getting Scotched up and playing air guitar to B.B. King.

Allen’s character feels alive only when her flirtation with a Lebanese restaurant worker (Simon Abkarian) becomes an affair. Potter is, as usual, attentive to the female viewpoint. She lingers on the burst of cultural sharing that begins the tryst—sensual talk of native fruits and heritage, the tentative move to subjects of language and numeracy, the delighted discovery of new mating rituals. But sheet-lolling scenes are soon spliced with more kinetic ones of the male lover’s fraught work life, a Shakespearean kitchen dumb show that turns on the alternately funny and vicious barbs of his co-workers—a Scot, an East Ender, a Jamaican immigrant—all suspicious of one another but resentfully bound by class. The Allen character, known only as “She,” has no access to her lover’s post-9-11 pressures, and when the precarious situation of this man who forfeited his job as a surgeon for manual labor in the West falls apart, she can only take his fury personally.

Potter indicts both characters’ prejudices while advancing a version of a rarely depicted middle-aged female fantasy. Her tactics might seem at once too dogmatic and too flowery. Both attributes combine in a Hallmark-ish Cuban beach sequence that unites the two lovers with a global radical tradition. But in jettisoning the patterns and pacing of Hollywood-ized male fantasy, she’s aiming her critique at nothing less than the main conundrum of both characters’ cultures—the problem of a woman’s freedom. Even the freedom to be flowery or dogmatic. And when Yes bristles with rhapsodic sex talk (“I’ll fuck you as a mistress/As a queen!”) and searing recriminations (“Terrorist!” “Bigot!” “Bitch!”), or veers off into the delightful soliloquies of a housekeeper (Shirley Henderson) who uses unflushed condoms and dust bunnies to construct a philosophy of entropy and endurance, Potter’s anachronistic rhyme schemes tumble forth with an out-damned-spot verve that rages against irrelevance.

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