(Sally Potter, UK, 2005)


There is one inarguable reason why everyone should see Sally Potter’s Yes: Shirley Henderson.

This Scottish actor has often blended into the ensemble of films by Michael Winterbottom, Mike Leigh, Shane Meadows and Lone Scherfig, not to mention Bridget Jones and Harry Potter instalments. But here she breaks out, magnetising the camera and seizing the space around her like few performers in recent memory.

Potter gives Henderson, as a character identified only as "Cleaner", a lot of time in Yes – even during the final credits, the film cannot bear to let her go (just as Claire Denis couldn’t let Denis Lavant go in Beau travail [1999]). From the first moment of proceedings, she prowls, glares, snoops, whispers. As the person who removes all the dirty traces, she intuits the secrets in the lives of those who employ her – and she is happy to tell us all about them, straight down the barrel of the camera lens. This Cleaner is also something of a philosopher, linking the smallest particles of the universe to its vast, cosmic currents.

There is also a bunch of other people in this film, just as emblematic as Cleaner, if never half as captivating: She (Joan Allen), a dissatisfied wife and scientist; Anthony (Sam Neill), Joan’s unlovely husband; He (Simon Abkarian), a Lebanese doctor in exile who enflames the long-frozen heart of She; and a group of gregarious kitchen hands who argue about global politics.

Like the Cleaner and everyone else who opens their mouth, these characters speak their lines in rhyming verse (iambic pentameter, to be precise) – although this is scripted and staged so deftly by Potter that only occasionally do viewers become aware of the conceit and its immense artifice.

Yes is a mixed blessing. But there is no denying Potter’s audacity, or her willingness to walk in the path of experimentation laid down long ago by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. There is also no doubting her extremely musical gift as a filmmaker: when the bodies, the poetry, the colour and the sound move in one unified rhythm, Potter can truly turn on the pure-cinema effect.

But then we bump up against the film’s content. Potter has been criticised by one commentator for the "continuing obsession with the sexual exoticisation of non-Western men by attractive middle-aged Waspy women" – a heady fantasy Yes carries over from The Tango Lesson (1997).

But let’s grant Potter artistic license on this point, for her fervent dream (like the writer John Berger’s) is to marry "desire for the Other" with a code of cosmopolitan, multicultural tolerance. The personal is political – and, in our increasingly divided, post-September 11 world, this is a ’70s slogan probably worth reviving.

The problem with Potter’s occasionally too-precious work lies elsewhere. Her aesthetic bravery and socio-cultural intentions are fine, but the way she tries to tie everything together never quite convinces. For Potter, it seems that political crises can be illuminated – and perhaps resolved, even transcended – in the poetic loveliness of passion, art and dance.

This too easily collapses, however, into a New Age bromide. If the fluttery, ever-rhyming heroine finds herself, one sunny day in Communist Cuba, feeling at one with the universe, then all (apparently) is right with the world, and the general negativity of history can be reversed into a great, Joycean cry of "Yes!".

If only changing the world was really that easy.

MORE Potter: Orlando

© Adrian Martin October 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search