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Thursday, Oct. 6, 2005

Faraway yet so close


Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Sally Potter
Running time: 100 minutes
Language: English
Opens Oct. 15
[See Japan Times movie listings]

'If it were me, I would never leave you by yourself . . . a beautiful woman like you." This is what "He" (Simon Abkarian) says to "She" (Joan Allen), a famed biologist in her 50s who is at a party with her politician husband (Sam Neill) somewhere in London. Bored, she had wandered off by herself and the dark, mustachioed stranger had approached her with these words. He is working as a waiter; she is an honored guest. Initially flustered, she quickly recovers and the look she gives him says it all: Yes.

News photo
Simon Abkarian and Joan Allen in Sally Potter's "Yes"

So the seduction is accomplished with that single sentence. "Yes" is both the title and recurring theme of this story of love and conflict between an Irish-American woman and a Lebanese man who remain unnamed, as if they had agreed to dispense with all ordinariness. From the beginning, the relationship is fraught with taboos and intrigue; not only is she married, but they also can't face each other across a table without being acutely aware of the differences in culture, religion, social status.

Though 9/11 is never mentioned, its shadow darkens their most intimate moments. Director/writer Sally Potter has always been skilled at blending political themes with intensely personal stories -- like her last film, "The Man Who Cried," in which a little Russian girl, separated from her father during the Nazi invasion, grows up to be a singer with the single objective of finding him again. In "Yes," the balance is absolutely perfect. Also wondrous is the elegant, restrained eloquence of the dialogue. Potter has written the entire screenplay in verse, or in Shakespearean scholar lingo, the iambic pentameter. The rhymes, though, are subtle, and the characters deliver them with such natural ease that careful listening is required to notice the rhythm.

Accordingly, everything else about the film is preciously crafted and amazingly detailed. In one scene, She sits on a bench of an indoor swimming pool, with the soft lights reflected off the water bouncing off her head and torso. The frame belongs in a small exclusive museum in some remote locale.

Yes, at times "Yes" can be too lovely to behold. But perhaps the very maturity of the protagonists call for it -- it's hard to imagine the well-groomed She and the world-weary He entering into anything that could be called sordid; they are too important to each other and know how such moments are fleeting.

Typical to Potter's oeuvre, "Yes" is also a careful charting of the emotional growth of a woman. Potter draws the viewer into Her world where to see her in her private moments becomes a privileged experience. A reticent woman with the regal bearing of a queen, her friends openly express their envy and admiration, and her teenage goddaughter (Stephanie Leonidas) finds her hip and understanding enough to be a confidante. But a closer inspection reveals how she is in pain and despairing; to keep her inner demons at bay she goes on punishing jogs.

She is told by her best friend, with a touch of venom, how fortunate She is, what a wonderful life She has. Her marriage, though, is slowly decomposing. A running commentary about her husband's betrayal and their manicured but sterile household is provided by a house-cleaner (Shirley Henderson) who functions as a Greek chorus to the story, pausing in her duties every so often to face the camera and deliver cheeky witticisms in true Victorian maid fashion. In one scene, the maid fishes a condom out of the toilet and observes that the act of throwing things away merely moves the dirt from one spot to another. And that stains never really go away, but are cleverly hidden, only to reappear at the most awkward moments.

The philandering husband is a prominent member of the British Parliament. His excuse for indiscretions is that his wife won't listen to his whiskey-induced complaints at the end of a stressful day. He unwinds by playing air guitar to B.B. King and whining to the goddaughter when she stops by. Inside their resplendent home, husband and wife are galaxies apart. They have a shared history, similar backgrounds and personal tastes, the same blonde hair; and yet, they're incapable of communicating. How can she possibly delve into the inner landscape of He? For the moment, she doesn't try. Her marriage is strangling her and she seeks Him for solace. She weeps in private, repairs her makeup and then runs over to his tiny apartment where he prepares a Middle-Eastern meal.

What She doesn't see coming is His rage and bitterness. He directs it at the white man's world in general but also at her as a person -- as this successful, beautiful, busy woman who bought him in a restaurant with her platinum credit card. In a particularly brutal argument, he unleashes his fury at what he sees as the benign, ignorant arrogance of the West, and reminds her that he (who had been a doctor in Beirut) has learned her language and the ways of her society, but she can't even pronounce his name.

After this searing exchange (which feels all too short), Potter shifts the story from London to Belfast where it transpires that Her aunt (Sheila Hancock) is dying. At the hospital, Auntie reminds her that She has always been too busy to care properly for other people. But that's what happens to women in capitalist societies, says Auntie. But in Cuba, President Fidel Castro has built a communist paradise where people have little in terms of materialism, but are rich in other ways "that really matter."

On the spot, She decides to go to Havana and invite Him to join her there, offering a plane ticket. By this time, however, He has already returned to Beirut and is ready to begin work as a surgeon. So she flies solo, luggageless, and checks into a crumbling hotel in Havana, still wearing the tweed suit she had on when she left London.

Much has been said about this last segment, and how the mood swings too quickly from heated prejudice to sunshine and iced coffee. What happened to the racial/political conflict? The switch is almost too much, but Allen carries it off. Away from London and in a totally different world, She is simply a woman waiting for her lover. Before, she was a woman struggling to assert herself as a scientist, a public figure, a wife and a woman with a secret lover. In Havana she discards all this and is rejuvenated by a hidden wellspring of joy and sensuality.

Still, Potter's postcard treatment of Cuba (with spa-like effects on top of it!) is unworthy of the rest of the story with all its agony and genuine romanticism. It would have been interesting to hear what the house-cleaner would have made of this sanitized Havana.

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