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2013/02/24

YES, a film by Sally Potter

by John Bloner, Jr.


I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.    James Joyce

These words conclude Joyce's novel, Ulysses, when Molly Bloom lies in bed beside her husband, Leopold, and reflects on the day just past and on their life together.

Seventy years after Ulysses was published, filmmaker Sally Potter lifted Molly Bloom's exulted cry from the page and placed it on the screen in the motion picture, YES, not as an adaptation of Joyce' work, but imbued with a sensual, intimate voice that earns its title of affirmation after much tribulation by its characters.


Like Joyce's monumental novel, Potter's fine, if somewhat more modest, achievement is both a work of art and a celebration of art's power to redeem the world. Say yes.
James Verniere, Boston Herald

In this film, an Irish-American molecular scientist, played by Joan Allen, encounters a Lebanese cook at an embassy's social night. The audience has already witnessed Allen's character (nameless in the film) in an unhappy marriage, feuding with her husband with allusions to his infidelity.

Her husband has taken her to this gathering but abandoned her there. The cook, played by Simon Abkarian, approaches and attempts to woo her. "A woman left alone, if it was me", he says, "I wouldn't...let such a beauty out of my sight. Not for one moment. No."

She retreats to a washroom where she plays out their encounter in her head. She is excited by this flirtation, but pushes it aside. "I don't believe this. I must say no, definitely", she tells herself.

Joan Allen in an encounter with Simon Abkarian in Sally Potter's YES
Has ever a movie loved an actress more than this one loves Joan Allen?     Roger Ebert

"No"quickly turns to "yes" in this film, as the characters carry out a torrid affair in a bed and other places, including in a restaurant, where everything sexual happens outside of the camera's eye. The film's screenplay offers these directions, "His hand has disappeared somewhere under the table, under her skirt. She leans back into him, ecstatically, trembling, hiding her face in his shoulder".

The film is about much more than the erotic, though. It is infused with Eros. John C. Pierrakos, MD writes, "Eros is the transformative force of life, love is the unifying force and sexuality is the creative force, the expression of our physical nature. Love is the expression of a conscious will to evolve toward a unified being. Eros, sexuality and love present the possibility of unifying the masculine and feminine within us".

The evolution toward a unified being is a frequent theme in Potter's films. YES explores class, sex, politics, love, religion and ethnicity. How can two people come together when their backgrounds work to pull them apart?  Potter's response, in not only this picture, but others that she has created, is for her characters to engage in the act of wrestling with the angel, to borrow the Biblical story of Jacob, and by shedding the ego and possessions that are an outward manifestation of the ego.


In the womb he grasped his brother's heel; as a man he struggled with God. He struggled with the angel and overcame him; he wept and begged for favor.  Hosea 12:3-5

The images above show Delacroix's mural, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, and a still from Potter's film, The Tango Lesson. As in YES, The Tango Lesson finds two people of dissimilar backgrounds together in a fevered clash of cultures, played out by a British filmmaker (with Sally Potter in the role) and a tango dancer, Pablo Veron.

What does it mean to wrestle with the angel? Reverend Bruce Goettsche offers this response. We wrestle when life crashes in around us, revealing a desperate need for God, which brings forgiveness and a new life for us. Late in the film, YES, Joan Allen places a video camera on a cupboard opposite her bed. The audience views her through the camera's lens, as she speaks, "God, if you exist...I need to confess".

She then stares out a window, occasionally glancing back at the camera. Her thoughts are heard on the soundtrack: "At first there's blossom, then there's decay...Impermanence will never go away. In fact, it is the only certainty; There'll come a time when I will cease to be..But not quite yet".


We all carry within us places of exile, our crimes, our ravages. Our task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to transform them in ourselves and others.  Albert Camus

Sally Potter has called her earlier film, Orlando,"a meditation on the impermanence of love, power and politics", but she may as well have been speaking of YES or some of her other pictures. Knowledge of impermanence teaches Joan Allen's character that she can only be saved by letting go of the artifice of her life with its trappings of a bad marriage, monetary wealth and an idealization of herself.

Potter's lead actor in Orlando, Tilda Swinton, expounds on the theme of impermanence. "When I was a young person, I somehow had got hold of the idea that growing older meant somehow accruing stuff. And my experience is the opposite," Swinton told Slant Magazine, to which Sally Potter replied (like the tolling of a bell), "Shedding, shedding . . .".

Sally Potter, director, dancer, choreographer, author, composer and performance artist
I think of the film almost like a long song  Sally Potter

In this article, I've focused on the story of the film and my interpretation of its meaning, but would like to share its richness from a visual and auditory perspective, too.  The soundtrack features the Brazilian ensemble, Uakti, performing Philip Glass' shimmering composition, Paru River, as well as songs by Tom Waits, Eric Clapton with BB King, and more. Potter is heavily involved in the score for her pictures, not only in selecting tracks, but also in composing some of them, along with her collaborator, guitarist, fellow composer and improviser, Fred Frith.

The visual aspects of YES are intriguing. Potter creates a sense of eavesdropping on her characters by showing them, at times, through the lens of surveillance cameras and through the eyes of a maid and others in the cleaning trade. They look directly at the audience. Unlike the other characters, they have nothing to hide while they ply their trade, and conversely, by their lowly trade, they are invisible to those of a higher social stature.

The auditory aspects of the film have received much press, because Potter wrote the script in iambic pentameter, the regularized rhythms in the works of Shakespeare. Survivors of high school English classes may shudder at the thought of listening again to rhyming couplets, but their concerns will be belied once they relax into the patterns and sounds of the story.

Listen to video below for the delightful way that Scottish actress Shirley Henderson, as Joan Allen's maid in YES, teases out these couplets in her soft, sexy, chipmunk voice, while the music of Brahms' Waltz in A-Flat Major plays on. It's no wonder that Potter says, "I think of the film almost like a long song".



I think yes is the most beautiful  and necessary word in the English language.  Sally Potter

Sally Potter is utterly original. She admits that she likes breaking all the rules. Her recent film, Rage, was the first film released for viewing on a cell phone. She also joined filmmaker and cartoonist, Nina Paley, who trusts that to survive as an artist in the 21st century is to give her work away. Through her online resource, SP-ARK, she provides an online resource to her films, beginning with Orlando, offering over 4,000 items about Orlando alone in its archive.

To learn more about her and her work, visit her Website or her page on the Internet Movie Database, or better yet, view her films.

Parting Words
Potter began writing YES on September 12, 2001. While it never references the horrific events that took place one day earlier, the film serves as antidote to hate. She told Marty Mapes, in an article for tcm.com, her thoughts on creating the script at that particular moment in history: "Instinctively I turned to love and to verse. Love because it is ultimately a stronger force than hate; and verse, because its deep rhythms and its long tradition enable ideas to be expressed in lyrical ways that might otherwise be indigestible".

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