Joan Allen is getting older. It's not that her face - which, since Pleasantville, has been inseperable for me from the mental image of Reese Witherspoon-all-grown-up - has changed, so much that age is using the actress like a chalkboard. Joan Allen today looks like Joan Allen of ten years ago, with wrinkles scribbled on.
It's striking to see an actress in such an obviously advancing state of ... um ... maturity, take on back-to-back roles that deal with sexuality, as Allen has done with The Upside of Anger and, now, Sally Potter's Yes. Allen's presence as an erotic subject in Potter's film is a brave and powerful one; it's too bad the film neglects that presence for a linguistic gamble that, somewhat sadly, the actors don't really pull off.
Yes is a frustrating film; its cache of good ideas are nearly fully obscured by Potter's decision to compose the script in iambic pentameter (Shakespearean rhyming scheme), and, perhaps even more troubling, her apparent indicision over the way this prose is performed. Some of the actors acquit themselves better than others. I'll generously suggest that the romantic leads have been simply miscast.
It's ostensibly the story of a torrid love affair between a Lebanese doctor-turned-cook (Simon Abkarian), and the Belfast-born wife (Allen) of a politician (Sam Neill). She (Potter refuses to assign her leads first names, annoyingly) knows her husband is chronically unfaithful; she's not hurt so much as pissed off. She's lonely, she's depressed, and she wants revenge. So when the help approaches her at a party with the oldest poaching-a-married-lady line in the book, there are a lot of reasons for her to hand over her business card.
Potter presents this scene, and others, as a surveilance-cam waltz, as if to underscore (in not the most subtle of ways) the dance she's playing between form and content. Abkarian and Allen are surely erotic oil and water; their best scenes together are wordless, and they both excel at conveying the body language of lovers who are a little repulsed by one another's difference, and simultaneously more drawn to one another by that repulsion.
But the party's over as soon as either actor opens their mouth. Allen can't resist the sing-song possibilities of the prose; each time she concludes a couplet, she does so with exclamatory triumph. Abkarian fights against the rhyme, making it all the more cringeworthy when they do pop up. And these rhymes are often very bad rhymes. Examples: "Am I too real? Perhaps with me, you have to feel!" Shudder. Or, this one, meant as a cutting rejoinder but performed super earnestly: "So many lies. I guess that's what happens when love dies." Uggghhh.
The core of the film, involving an exchange of information between Allen's husband and goddaughter (the devastatingly good Samantha Leonidas), makes the two leads look especially bad. Neill and Leonidas give stunning, deeply felt, carefully interrogated interpretations of the prose; in comparison Allen and Abkarian come off like amateurs rehearsing for a community theater production of As You Like It. The lead actors never once feel like real people, and it's impossible to take them or their various predicaments seriously behind the distraction of the language.
That said, I don't think words exist to describe how good Sam Neill is in this picture. Every moment he is on screen elevates Yes to a state of compulsive watchability, to the point where it suddenly, temporarily transcends its formal holding pen to become a real movie. Leonidas, playing a sixteen-year-old budding tramp, is almost as good.
I can't even begin to conceive of why (or how) Potter concluded that the polar-opposite peformance styles of Neill/Leonidas and Allen/Abkarian belonged in the same picture. Neill's performance suggests that the iambic pentameter could have been much more than just a Brechtian gimmick, that it could have worked extremely well and Yes could have been a terrifically engaging film, if only the leads had either been better directed or simply been better cast. As it stands, it's a quizzical object, worth seeing as a curiosity for Potter fans (or Sam Neill superfans), but probably ultimately maddening for most audiences.