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A World of Yes at LA Film Festival

By Susan diRende

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Simon Abkarian and Joan Allen as He and She in "Yes"

Sally Potter's new film, 'Yes' is a modern day Greek tragedy without the tragic ending. It is wonderful and imaginative and if you like movies both smart and touching, it will please you down to your toes. That said, the very effectiveness of the movie, from its magnificent use of image and language to its riveting acting, is in the end diminished by a simplistic jump to a happy ending that got Potter out of the story but left me feeling as if, after feeding me a feast of delicacies, she gave me a Hershey Bar for dessert.

Tidy endings do not seem to suit Potter's style. 'Orlando' ended when the march of time had arrived at the present. It was an open and evocative fade out, inviting the film and its message to be finished in a future its audience would make after leaving the theater. I think 'Yes' would have been better served with the same kind of invitation. Potter admits she tried many endings, and to her credit, chose hope over the despair. Yet a sudden answer to a prayer carries such powerful cultural baggage, that a film speaking on both the personal and cultural levels as this one did seemed for a moment to be preaching in an otherwise anti-didactic movie.

Nevertheless, 'Yes' delivers a sumptuously textured tale, equally powerful on the microscopic scale of two lovers and on the macroscopic scale of geopolitics. The movie tells the story of a stem-cell scientist in a sterile marriage (Joan Allen) who begins an affair with a Lebanese chef (Simon Abkarian) she meets at a catered dinner. The conjunction of sterile marriage and job is not accidental. Everything in this movie echoes on both the everyday and epic level. It all 'rhymes,' both literally and figuratively.

On the level of language, the rhyming is literal. Potter's script is in iambic pentameter. This dawns on you slowly. First you notice a classical cadence to the modern speech. Then you start hearing the rhyming couplets. At that point, you lose the thread of the story for a while and start listening for the rhyme. Then the dialogue becomes transparent again as the unfolding drama rises to match the language.

On the surface a simple story of lovers trying to hold on to love across the gulf of class and culture, 'Yes' illuminates the greater geopolitical question of whether peace, like love, is possible between Western European Christian and Middle Eastern Muslim peoples of good will. The wrenching fight between She and He (the lovers have no personal names) near the end of the movie made me want to weep both for these two individuals and for the whole world.

According to Potter, this scene was the embryo of the film. Written on September 12, 2001, it captures the rage, despair, and desire to repair the damage to our collective hearts beautifully. She then made a short film out of the scene with Abkarian before moving to create a whole film from it.

For all its social commentary, "Yes" remains a true love story.

It is after that scene that the story begins to tie its loose ends into a tidy finish. Life becomes as simple as a Master Card commercial with the lovers kissing on a beach. In fairness, this moment is one that Joan Allen says brings tears to her eyes every time she watches it. My personal reaction to the prayer moment may have diminished for me a message that others will find beautiful.

Ending on a hopeful note brings the audience back to the premise stated by her Greek Chorus/Housekeeper at the beginning of the film 'that 'no' does not exist. There's only 'yes.'' And despite my disappointment with the final moments, if anyone wonders if they should see this film, my final answer is most certainly: Yes.

'Yes' is showing at the Los Angeles Film Festival Tuesday, June 21 at 7:30 p.m. and Wednesday, June 22 at 2:00 p.m. Tickets at lafilmfest.com.

Published on Dec 31, 1969

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