Roger Ebert Home

Roger's Favorites: Sally Potter

Each day during this special week we will be highlighting the filmmakers and actors that Roger championed throughout his career. A table of contents for all of our "Roger's Favorites" posts can be found here. Below is an entry on writer/director Sally Potter

Sally Potter is a writer, director, composer and choreographer known for films about, as Roger once described them, "women who use art and artifice to escape from the roles society as assigned them." A unique talent not afraid of centuries-long, supposedly unadaptable Virginia Woolf novels ("Orlando"), doing the tango in her own movies ("The Last Tango") or telling an erotic story in iambic pentameter dialogue ("Yes"), Potter offers an audacious vision that excited Roger for many of her films, the latter title becoming an Ebertfest selection in 2008. 

Roger’s fascination with Sally Potter started at the first film he reviewed, the 1993 drama “Orlando,” of which he awarded three-and-a-half stars on July 9, 1993. Fitting to the type of curiosity her filmography would often ignite within him, the second paragraph of this review is the other type of reward from a critic: “This is the kind of movie you want to talk about afterward.” The plot synopsis alone is enough to cause that discussion. Tilda Swinton plays an “omnisexual character” who lives for decades, an existence that challenges notions of gender and identity. As the best films often did, “Orlando” inspired Roger to explore the narrative’s questions aloud: “What does it mean to be born as a woman, or a man?” He does say that the film is “directed with sly grace and quiet elegance by Sally Potter,” but his following statement could be considered the biggest compliment: “It is not about a story or plot, but about a vision of human existence.” 

Potter’s followup, 1997’s “The Tango Lesson,” earned Roger’s admiration in a different way, along with another three-and-a-half star rating in a review published on December 19, 1997. Roger loved how Potter cast herself in a story about a woman named Sally who learns to do the tango from a teacher in Argentina; Potter did her own dance moves, and was quite good at them. Responding to critics who said that such an act was “blatant narcissism” or one of "wild hubris,” Roger heavily sided with Potter's choice, stating: “My theory is, if you’ve got it, flaunt it.” A fan of the hormonal heat within Potter’s film, Roger enjoyed that the film’s center tango scenes were “about the wisdom of passion, rather than the temptation.” Caught up in the film’s romance, even the music got to him: “The score, partly composed by Potter, is so seductive that for the first time in years I walked out of the screening and down the street and bought the soundtrack.” 

Roger gave three stars to Potter’s next film, the period drama “The Man Who Cried," starring Christina Ricci, Cate Blanchett, John Turturro and Johnny Depp. He called it “amazingly ambitious” in a review published on June 22, 2001, and made a timely correlation by saying Potter’s film was an “art house companion to ‘Moulin Rouge.’” 

Yet while “The Man Who Cried” may been comparable to another movie, it was Potter’s next film that Roger said was “unlike any other I have seen or heard.” On July 7, 2005, Roger gave four stars to “Yes,” a sexual drama that's "artistically mannered and overtly political," starring Joan Allen“Has ever a movie loved an actress more than this one loves Joan Allen?” Roger seemingly always asked whenever he wrote about this film. He also called Potter’s movie “alive and daring,” for the way in which it expressed real eroticism with such delicacy, and for how the dialogue was written in iambic pentameter. “To me, it sounds like prose that has been given the elegance and discipline of formal structure,” Roger wrote. “What the dialogue brings to the film is a certain unstated gravity, it elevates what is being said into a realm of grace and care.” 

Roger interviewed Allen and Potter for a fascinating talk that was published on July 3, 2005—“’Yes’ is Elegant, Bold, Original, Erotic,” in which Roger addressed the many elements that intrigued him about Potter’s film. At the end of the year, “Yes” would end up at the #9 spot on his “Best Of” list. Three years later, Roger invited Sally Potter to present “Yes” at Ebertfest 2008.

Roger didn’t review Potter’s next film, 2009's “Rage,” but he did publish a three-star review of “Ginger and Rosa” on March 20, 2013. The effect of this film, a drama about two political teenagers was more nostalgic, with Roger more actively expressing recognition of its parts than any direct criticism. In Elle Fanning’s character, who joins Ban the Bomb movement marches in the early 60s, Roger saw himself: “In 1962, in Urbana as in London, we awaited doomsday pronounces from the pacifist philosopher Lord Bertrand Russell. I recall a day that year when campus life stopped and everyone gathered around TV sets to see if Soviet weapons ships would turn back from JFK’s deadlines.” His conclusion to the review shows a dearth of enthusiasm, at least compared to Potter's previous films: “What I’ll take away from it is the knowledge that now the Fannings have given us two actresses of such potential.” 

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