Bursting with heavy-handed postulations about everything from global terrorism to the ethos of dust particles, Sally Potter’s “Yes” is a deeply idiosyncratic essay film made under the signs of Derek Jarman, Peter Greenaway and playwright Tony Kushner, but not nearly up to the level of those artists’ best work. Staring Joan Allen as an Irish-American scientist who enters into an affair with a Lebanese cook, pic ultimately has nothing of any real depth or profundity to say, but a thousand self-consciously complex ways of saying it. Sure to have its partisans, as it did in Telluride, pic is the type of purely intellectual construct that, even when it works, inspires most audiences to say “No.”
Arriving on the heels of Potter’s terminally silly Johnny Depp starrer “The Man Who Cried” and the solipsistic “The Tango Lesson,” “Yes” serves as further indication that Potter’s striking 1992 feature, “Orlando,” may have been a fluke.
After opening with an amusing if showy monologue delivered directly to camera by chameleonic Scottish actress Shirley Henderson (playing a housemaid), “Yes” switches its focus to a molecular biologist (Allen) and her politico husband (Sam Neill), trapped in a busted-up marriage.
At a dinner party, Allen (whose character is unnamed in the film and referred to in press notes only as “She”) catches the eye of the cook (Armenian thesp Simon Abkarian, fittingly known only as “He”). She flirts with him a bit and leaves him with her phone number. After returning from an international conference, she calls him up and an affair begins.
By this point, it’s already obvious that “Yes” is no ordinary tale of adultery. Not only have the characters not been assigned names, but when they open their mouths, dialogue tends to emerge as rhyming couplets — often quite bad ones. (Example: “Call me whore. I’ll ask for more.”) On those occasions when the dialogue takes a momentary respite, viewers are made privy to the characters’ innermost thoughts, presented as rambling voiceovers in the fashion Wim Wenders employed (to much stronger effect) in “Wings of Desire.”
Pic is built around a series of encounters between He and She, including one particularly silly public display of sexual attraction that feels like an outtake from Jane Campion’s “In the Cut.” However, viewers never learn more than the most basic information about who these people are or what drives them — a strategy that might have worked better if the film’s theoretical ideas were themselves more interesting.
Clearly, as in Kushner’s “Homebody/Kabul,” Potter intends her characters to register less in a specific sense than as archetypical sides of a timely geopolitical divide — the compassionate, yet inevitably imperialistic Westerner trying, yet failing to understand the psychologically and emotionally oppressed Middle Easterner. But unlike Kushner — or, for that matter, Jean-Luc Godard, in the recent “Our Music” — Potter never moves past the surface of that cliche notion.
While an assortment of other narrative tangents present themselves — She’s guilt-riddled relationship with elderly Irish aunt (Sheila Hancock); He’s tense dealings with the other members of the kitchen staff — “Yes” only becomes increasingly tedious as it progresses.
And though Allen and Abkarian (who made a big impression as the lead in Michel Deville’s “Almost Peaceful” in 2002) are powerful actors, both are finally at a loss in their efforts to make something meaningful out of the material, or at least something closer to a movie than a doctoral thesis.
Shot in Super 16mm by Alexei Rodionov, pic has a deliberately grainy, slightly overexposed texture, which Potter then transfigures through an endless succession of dissolves, video-shot inserts, slow-motion effects and other manipulations that seem designed (as in the worst of Greenaway) to keep auds from noticing how empty pic really is.
Soundtrack is a similarly undigested overload of recycled pieces by Tom Waits, Philip Glass and Kronos Quartet, plus original compositions by Potter herself.