Director Sally Potter specializes in films that feel like a Ph.D. dissertation gone cinematic, with all the esoteric language and brainy navel-gazing that implies.
A more far-out answer to Jane Campion, Potter (Orlando, The Tango Lesson) is the woman still marching in the demonstrations and storming the barricades while Campion breaks through the corporate glass ceiling.
Those who aren't driven mad by Potter's latest project, Yes, an ambitious, experimental feminist bodice ripper, will probably fall in love with it. Yes is a wholly original, ambitious and often patience-testing love story -- the kind of iconoclastic film to inspire extremes of devotion and annoyance. But thank goodness there are still filmmakers out there taking the kinds of creative risks that inspire such emotional extremes.
Yes tackles Arab-Western politics through the prism of a love affair between a modern, self-confident, married scientist (Joan Allen) and a proud, devout Lebanese cook (Simon Abkarian). The lovers are known simply as She and He.
She retaliates against her cheating husband, Anthony (a delightfully repressed, befuddled Sam Neill), by embarking on the affair.
She finds head-spinning sexual release in an illicit relationship defined by under-the-table public groping and other steamy exchanges that clearly have not defined her relationship to her brittle, upper-crust British husband.
But the affair is complicated by the politics of their union, a psychological minefield of a working-class, traditional Muslim falling for a rich, independent Western woman. Potter delights in reversing stereotypes, too, making He more emotional and romantic, and She the rational, scientific one. Potter takes chances and often hits pay dirt, as in a glorious scene in a parking garage where Abkarian unleashes a heartfelt attack against Western arrogance and prejudice that crystallizes all the justified rage and hurt of people pushed to the margins and vilified as inhuman.
Using a host of experimental techniques including direct-camera address, slow-motion and dialogue spoken in rhyming verse, Potter examines various conflicts that define her lovers' lives. Potter appears to tackle each and every duality on a grad student's checklist: class, ethnicity, culture, gender. The results are often skin-crawlingly awkward, but also uniquely brave, like Potter's decision to present her dialogue in rhyming iambic pentameter.
One of Potter's bolder moves is to have the story of the lovers bracketed by the observations of a devilish maid with a church mouse voice (the puckish Shirley Henderson) who disposes of Anthony's condoms, fluffs pillows and cleans the couple's otherwise immaculate house. Looking directly at the camera and speaking to us like a co-conspirator, the maid offers philosophical musings on how no matter how much we clean, there is dust and skin and detritus everywhere.
Despite all of our efforts at control, the world is constantly changing, moving, and defying us. Despite the pristine white couches and high design of the home where the husband and wife live, whole worlds of filth and chaos lurk.
For all the film's self-awareness and moments of soft-core romantic ecstasy, Potter is also profoundly insightful about the various tensions that define our lives, which her two mismatched lovers so beautifully illustrate. Potter is a filmmaker who combines emotion with intellect and the results are captivating as characters unleash great swirling masses of dialogue, pouring out their hearts and minds. The effect is woozy, inebriating, outlandish, but also hard to resist. In an age of creative self-consciousness and practiced cool, Potter is a thrilling exception. She is the kind of filmmaker who operates from instinct and shoots with heart and passion, and a fair amount of real sensuality.
It's hard not to come away with respect for a director so fundamentally challenging the conventions of filmmaking in her own original, fascinating way.
In the end, Potter gets under your skin.
I can see Rushdie's stuff adapting well. Lots of plot to play with.