The man and woman who have a semi-extra-marital affair -- she's married, he's not -- in Sally Potter's Yes go only by the monikers She and He in the movie's credits, and nobody in the film calls them by name. This means (of course) that they represent more than just the identities on their birth certificates. For She and He are You and I (that is: Us -- or would it be the predicate nominative, We?).
And because She (Joan Allen) is an Irish-born, American-raised research scientist with a British husband (Sam Neill), and He (Simon Abkarian) is a Lebanese-born cook in a London restaurant (although he was a doctor in Beirut), they represent their cultures and classes as well.
They -- and here, mean all of the characters in Yes -- also speak in iambic pentameter, sometimes with rhyming couplets. This is the meter of the Shakespearean sonnet, as in, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day / thou art more lovely and more temperate," etc. So far, so good: There's nothing wrong with making a 21st-century art film where specific people represent all of Us, and where culture and politics clash, and where the dramatis personae speak in a style of language honored by the literary ages (Chaucer and Shakespeare and Potter -- oh, my!).
It's just that Potter -- who made the gender-blender Orlando, based on a Virginia Woolf story -- doesn't pull it off in Yes, which is more or less a Lifetime Original Movie dressed up for a MOMA opening.
Potter is a Big Giant Head with no instinct for creating emotional involvement in her work. It's not her contrivance that gets in the way: In fact, her actors speak their lines as they would prose, never stressing the rhythm or the rhymes. It's simply that Potter, who is a feminist deconstructionist intellectual (not that there's anything wrong with that), doesn't give them anything compelling to say or do that we can't also find in a TV movie, a romance novel, or an anthology of essays on "Gender, Culture and Politics." (If that's not the name of an actual anthology, then it should be.)
The movie opens with She's maid telling us all about her employers' troubled marriage. The maid is good at her job, but the "human dust" in their home will never go away, and the maid often sees "pain imprinted on the bed." She and other servants in Yes are Potter's gravediggers and fools, over-speaking the truth so we don't have to think for ourselves, or simply glancing knowingly at the camera after something weighty has just taken place on screen. "Everything you do and say leaves evidence," the maid sums up at the end of Yes, and "there's no such thing as nothing -- 'no' does not exist, only 'yes.' "
In between, we witness an affair that allows Potter to round up the usual suspects. Women and friendship: She and her gal pal "compete for who suffers most." Teen-agers: She's goddaughter thinks she's fat. Marriage: Love dies. Politics: She is angry at injustice but does nothing to fight it, and She ignores her aunt, a Belfast Communist, while professing to admire her. Religion: At He's job, an angry, ignorant, Anglo Londoner rails against immigrants and Islam. ("Terrorist!" he shouts. "Imperialist!" He replies.)
"Each of us is the source of all the bad -- and all the good things, too," we're told. This is the nadir of Potter's banality -- or would it be the zenith? But let's not discount this: "Could objectivity be just a point of view?" Well, duh. Anything can be anything, can't it? Well, can't it?
She and He meet at a party, and you can tell right away that She is starved for the attention of a man. Like Omar Khayyam, he flatters her with a chauvinistic compliment: "How could a man let such a beautiful woman out of his sight?" (What is she? A loaf of bread? A jug of wine?) And yet, this pleases her, although later, when his Middle Eastern machismo kicks in, she bristles at his possessiveness and chest-thumping.
Potter films her story handsomely, with washed-out colors that still retain some crispness because she tends to over-light things. At times she escapes into some bits of style that are supposed to capture states of mind, things like skewed angles, slow motion, superimposed images, and a montage of She sitting in front of a blank wall, looking directly into the camera. One image in this montage places She in the lower left corner of the frame, as if she's about to spill off the screen. Compare Potter's fecund style to that of Miranda July, whose equally artsy and much more convincing Me, You and Everyone We Know saw no need to get visually fancy.
From so much insipid sophistication -- Potter seems to think that contradictions are ambiguities -- all you really have to take home is a beautiful performance by Allen, who manages to make every word, gesture and emotion seem (if not feel) thoroughly lived. She's clearly in another place in Yes, and it would be lovely to be there with her. But Potter and the rest of her movie get in the way.