Talking Pictures

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Yes, USA / UK 2004.

Posted by keith1942 on April 15, 2014

Yes USA

After the ‘diversion’ of The Man Who Cried Sally Potter returns to more familiar territory in terms of both production and content. The production companies include her regular support Adventure Pictures, other apparently independent producers and the UK Film Council. I had seen the film before, but second time round it seemed to me the best feature in the Potter retrospective at the Bradford International Film Festival.

Like Potter’s best films it is unconventional in a fairly distinctive way. The dialogue is delivered in iambic pentameters, sometimes rhyming sometimes not. Critical opinions were divided on this technique: however, I not only thought it worked well but that it bought an added dimension to characterisation and story.

Essentially the plot centres on an affair between ‘he’, a Lebanese doctor now working as a chef in London, ands ‘She’, a scientist of Irish American extraction. [Note the difference in upper and lower case!] The plot also involves She’s husband, an Ambassador played by Sam Neill. The couple share a god-daughter Grace (Stephanie Leonidas). And he has family in Beirut whilst She has a surviving aunt in Belfast (Sheila Hancock). Added into this is a cleaner (Shirley Henderson) who, in a typical Potter trope, addresses ironic comments direct to the camera. These comments both open and close the film. Commentary between the characters, at She’s home, in the kitchen where he works,  hint at wider political issues. These include Ant-Arab prejudice, anti-Irish prejudice, the explosive events in 2001, and the way that an amalgam of British culture and British based religion feed into values and attitudes.

As is common in Potter films one is aware of references to other films, other artworks and other cultures. Given the central plot device one instinctively thinks of William Shakespeare’s Othello. And indeed, some lines of dialogue reminded me strongly of that play. The resonances work because the cast deliver the verse with real brio. Joan Allen and Simon Abkarian are superb in this, as they are in the more physical scenes. There is one sequence, late in the film, set in an underground car park. One can imagine Shakespeare seizing such a setting with relish. This is an immensely powerful and moving sequence.

Potter is well served by her collaborators on the film – Alexei Rodionov on cinematography, Carlos Conti with Production Design, and Fred Frith working with Potter on the music. In fact, it was the visual and sound design that I remembered most vividly from the first screening.

The film also fits the Potter template with its resolution. One is waiting for a denouement that several times seems just around the next scene. But when it comes it works well, with a suitably ambiguous resolution.

Leslie Felperin gave the film a very positive review in Sight & Sound (August 2005). However, he also included the following comment: ‘Despite her occasional faults as a director (self-indulgence, humourless), feminist film-making icon Potter has always shown rare taste.’ The ‘self-indulgence’ is true to a degree – but what filmmaker elevated to the ranks of auteur is not? Certain one could apply the term to the winner of the most recent Sight & Sound poll. Alfred Hitchcock. The ‘humourlessness’ puzzled me more, I looked it up in a dictionary: not a lot of help. So I checked the Thesaurus: the alternatives on offer were ‘serious’ and ‘dull’. Potter’s films are full of wit an irony so I cannot imagine any experienced critics calling them dull. Serious, yes, but is that not a welcome alternative when so many ‘serious artists’ end up relying on mainstream finance? I do think that if critics watch too large a diet of mainstream films then it is likely to blunt their critical acumen.

 

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