When I interviewed Joan Allen and Sally Potter about their new film "Yes," I assumed everyone who saw it would love it as I do. I was mistaken. Although it has many supporters, it has opened to some savage reviews ("Ideas of almost staggering banality" -- A.O. Scott, New York Times).
I find this opposition hard to understand. The movie finds an elegant and original way of telling its story, it is erotic beyond description, it contains politics that are provocative even if you find them wrong-headed, and has ever a movie loved an actress more than this one loves Joan Allen?
It also boldly contains its own running critique in the form of minor characters who observe the romantic leading characters and sniff that they, too, sweat, excrete, shed dead cells and are destined to rejoin the dust.
This is a movie so daring in its approach that it should be applauded even if it didn't also work on the level of a story about two people who find that sex is simple but life is baffling. The central characters are named She and He (Joan Allen and Simon Abkarian), and even this has offended some critics; would they have been placated by Betty and Mustafa? Angie and Ali?
She is the unhappy wife of a cold and distant man (Sam Neill). He was once a surgeon in Lebanon, is now a cook in London. Their eyes meet during a boring dinner, where she is a guest and he is a server. They do not look away, but begin a dance of curiosity and complicity that leads, soon enough, to sudden and needful sex. After the novelty of their ecstasy runs thin, they are faced with the facts that she is Western, rich and married, and he is Arabic, poor, and has Muslim ideas about women which do not correspond to her behavior. What to do?
To this outline, I must now add something that has caused consternation to a few critics: The characters speak in rhyming iambic pentameter. That is the rhyme scheme of Shakespeare, who found it the vehicle for the most supple prose ever written. Because the actors are so skilled and because the dialogue is phrased and rhymed so subtly, many viewers of the film may never even much notice the rhymes.
"My intention," Potter said, "was to naturalize the dialogue completely. When it was written, it was tightly structured. Most of it is iambic pentameter: 10 syllables a line with rhymes at the end of the line; sometimes two in a row, sometimes first and fourth, sometimes the rhyme half way through the line as well, for double rhyme. From a writing perspective, it was a great discipline, but strangely, incredibly freeing to work within that discipline, to go deep into the ideas.
"But once it got to the performing state, it was about -- OK, now let's throw it away. We don't respect the lines, we ignore them; we concentrate on the meaning and emotion. And so we went deeply into the emotions, and I think Joan was a genius in the way she naturalized the verse."
"And yet," Joan Allen said, "I've never done Shakespeare. Can you believe that? Ever?"
This was at the Toronto Film Festival, a week after I saw the movie at Telluride. We talked again after a screening of the movie in Chicago. I was aware of two professionals in the full flower of their talents. For Allen, one of the founders of Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago and a three-time Oscar nominee, this has been a year of wonders, with her work in "Off the Map" (as an earth-woman living off the land in New Mexico with a dreamy daughter and a depressed husband); "The Upside of Anger" (as an alcoholic suburban housewife who has an affair with a boozy ex-baseball hero), and now "Yes," as an elegant woman catapulted by eroticism out of her dead life and into dangerous opportunities.
As for Potter, have you seen "The Tango Lesson" (1997), in which she plays an ordinary British woman who impulsively goes to Argentina and gives herself over to the tango? Or her "Orlando" (1992), starring Tilda Swinton in Virginia Woolf's story of a very long-lived person who is sometimes male and sometimes female, doing a sort of gender-optional tour of British history?
Allen pointed out that the first character to speak in "Yes" is the woman's maid, played by Shirley Henderson. She mops and dusts and speculates on the tiny dust mites and infinitesimal creatures that occupy our space and munch away on our debris: "She launches the film, and she has an extraordinary ability to make the dialogue style seem incredibly conversational, because of the way she delivers it, she sets the stage for all of us to come afterward."
Did it take a lot of work before filming began?
"There were so many layers to explore and discover," Allen said, "In films, you know, you don't get much rehearsal time, but we had probably altogether maybe six or seven weeks."
"When you first saw the screenplay," I asked her, "were you flummoxed?"
"I was a little intimidated but then as soon as I met Sally, it all sort of made sense -- especially the rhyming."
"I've had the hope," Potter said, "that people might come of the film just wishing that we always talked that way. That it was natural, that the long song form or verse is actually a natural rhythmic way of speaking. When we go to Shakespeare we're aware and we're not aware -- which iambic pentameter makes possible because it gives you a long leg to go with, a long verbal stride."
But enough about the poetry, how about the sex? There is a scene in the movie where He and She are in a restaurant. There is no nudity. Nothing is explicitly shown. We understand but cannot see what is happening. She has an orgasm all the more thrilling for being suppressed and concealed. Nobody at another table tells a waiter, "I'll have whatever she's having." This scene is extended and subtle -- bold, but boldness concealed.
"The secret there was to get to the point where the actors were having fun," Potter said. "Most sex scenes in the movies have actors who are so deadly serious, and self-conscious, and uptight. We rehearsed it until we could laugh about it, enjoy it -- not the sex, the acting -- and then when we filmed, everyone was relaxed and there was a joy instead of all that tension."
I don't know, I told Allen, when I've seen a more voluptuous character on the screen, glowing within her own skin, particularly in scenes where you have no makeup on, or you're dripping wet, and you lack the safeguards that actresses use; you're saying, "here I am, I'm healthy, I'm in good shape, I'm loved, and I feel great."
"Sally has an incredible balance of emotional and psychological content," Allen said, "I felt well taken care of and Aleksei Rodionovk, the cinematographer, was that way as well. I felt so protected that I could relax and go to places because I knew it was going to be fine."
Potter said Allen has a beauty that "brings out intelligence. It's a beauty that shows first in the eyes. When I'm working with somebody, whether it's Tilda Swinton or Joan Allen, I really study that person a lot. I look all the time. Joan, you must have felt my eyes on you. I'm trying to figure out how this person's face works, and what happens here, and what happens there. It's a joyful process."
I'm taking it for granted, I said, that there is an echo of Molly Bloom in the title -- Molly Bloom, whose monologue ends James Joyce's Ulysses.
"Yes," Joan Allen said.
"Yes," said Sally Potter. "Which is the word Molly Bloom says. Over and over. Yes, yes, yes."