Ever idiosyncratic and daring British filmmaker Sally Potter with "Yes" tells a searing — the only word for it — love story that lays bare the pain and rage of the conflicts between the Middle East and the West in the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq War, with its demonization of the Arab world on the one side and escalating hatred of America on the other.
Bold, vibrant and impassioned, "Yes" is the work of a high-risk film artist in command of her medium and gifted in propelling her actors to soaring performances — yes, "soaring" is right, just as "searing" is. Potter, who first came to attention with the problematic "Orlando" (1992), is unafraid of letting herself getting carried away.
In this instance, in two ways: First, in writing her dialogue in iambic pentameter; second, in going for an epilogue that can only be described as a Hollywood ending. There are moments when the rhyming works, but there are others when it seems merely silly or pretentious. Luckily, her actors are up to limning in verse with a lack of self-consciousness.
The glory of the film is the remarkable Joan Allen, whose virtuosity is well matched by that of Simon Abkarian. Allen's "She" is a cool goddess, an eminent London-based microbiologist and Belfast-born American. She lives in a starkly decorated town house whose cold, spare elegance reflects the ashen state of her marriage to Anthony (Sam Neill), a successful politician and unfaithful husband. Anger and resentment lurk just beneath the surface of their poised public facade, but at a grand dinner when the unhappy She connects with a waiter (Abkarian), who will be known only as "He," she does not fight it. He turns out to be a Lebanese surgeon who fled Beirut a decade before and lives modestly as a restaurant cook.
They plunge headlong into a torrid affair, but a nasty, potentially violent clash between He and several other cooks of varying ethnicity, religion and politics thrusts He back into his Arabic identity and culture, causing him to reject She as a symbol of a superpower that looks down on the Arab world. The fireworks in the kitchen, followed by He's rejection of She, cuts to the heart of the matter on various levels and in their ferocious intensity and luminosity recalls similar moments in "Crash."
"Yes" involves a process of self-discovery for She even more than He. She tends to appropriate the pain and strife of her Northern Ireland heritage without ever embracing it — she neglects her leftist Belfast aunt (Sheila Hancock), who inspires She's best instincts — and tends to overlook that she left her birthplace at age 10 for America. Yet She is prepared to face herself and life itself with as much courage and honesty as she can muster. Allen and Abkarian have the presence, skill and commitment to take the viewer along on harrowing emotional journeys. Shirley Henderson, as She and Anthony's sly and unnervingly observant housekeeper, is the most important of several cleaners who serve as a Greek chorus, one of Potter's more effective devices.
"Yes" is gorgeous and stylish for sure, and Potter in collaboration with guitarist Fred Frith composed for it an aptly seductive, sinuous score. If the film inspires a fence-sitting reaction it also evokes the feeling that "Yes" is a case of too much being preferable to the not enough that movies more often deliver.
MPAA rating: R for language and some sexual content
Times guidelines: Complex adult themes, some sex
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Writer-director Sally Potter. Producers Christopher Sheppard, Andrew Fierberg. Cinematographer Alexei Rodionov. Editor Daniel Goddard. Music Potter with Fred Frith. Costumes Jacqueline Durran. Production designer Carlos Conti. Art director Claire Spooner. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.In selected theaters.