Ostensibly Yes is about a London woman of a certain age and means who commences a love affair with a Lebenese hotel chef forced to flee his life as a surgeon in Beirut. Class, gender, age, fundamentalism: check, check, check, check—and it’s in iambic pentameter (10 syllables per line). Add to this that the main characters are only referred to as He and She, and writer/director Sally Potter (Orlando)’s 2004 project sounds like the stuff that film critics bad dreams are made of.
Except: it’s not, it’s really not. As She, Joan Allen sheds her customary brittleness for an earthly sensuality that Potter’s lens seize upon almost greedily. As her foil, Simon Abkarian infuses He with a sexy wit that prevents the tragic details of his characters’ life from subsuming him. There’s much to say about this film — about the careful revelations the cinematography and art direction consistently provide, about the pleasure afforded by She’s white trench coat and He’s black suit jacket slowly coated by petals on a spring walk, about the slow coiling of tension that never is cheaply deployed — but it is Yes’ emphasis on adult female sexuality that lingers with me a day later.
In one scene, She and He dine in a well-appointed restaurant, the type of place whose expensiveness is most evident in its hush, and as they gaze upon each other with a clear-eyed amusement, he brings her to an orgasm with his hand beneath the table. Afterward he licks his finger lasciviously and they laugh silently. Hot. When is a sex scene onscreen solely focused upon female pleasure, especially one that lives even in the ballpark of plausibility? Especially one that focuses on the pleasure of a woman, not a girl.
For Joan Allen has never looked more beautiful and she has never looked more her age, a fact that seems not only in keeping but essential to the prevailing elegance of this film. In another scene, She goes swimming with her goddaughter, a study in the new, knowing ripeness of late adolescence. The juxtaposition of their two bodies invites the kind of comparison that most women over 30 might shun, but when the girl asks, “Do you mind the lines on your face?” She only smiles enigmatically, an oyster smile. The grace She displays fluttering through the pool renders the young girl’s body, prone on a sundeck chair, as too obvious, still clumsy. It is a grace carved out by She’s purposefulness—a beauty borne by the survival of her will and willingness after life’s inevitable disappointments. As Potter has said in interviews, “Yes is the most beautiful word.”
That’s what I love about this film. The pedestalization of woman over girl; the declaration that what has survived invisibility is in fact most beautiful (this is true of He, too). Only this weekend not one but two movies about late-30s women struggling with declining fertility have been released (Baby Mama, Then She Found Me), reinforcing the constant message that women over a certain age are not only unsavory but almost no longer biologically female (certainly not biologically viable). I have to say: writer/director Sally Potter’s Yes, about which I had been warned aplenty, proved a welcome relief.