reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, July 18, 2005


Molière's Bourgeois Gentleman was famously delighted to learn he had been speaking prose all his life. Yet, as historian Jacques Barzun noted in From Dawn to Decadence, "His surprise is well-founded … What he spoke all his life was not prose, but speech. Prose is the written form of deliberate expression… It is as artificial as verse."

Nor should a modern gentleman assume he is speaking "dialogue," because what screenwriters are paid large sums to contrive is barely more authentic than quatrains would be. I recall a 1994 radio interview with Steve Barancik, the painfully shy writer of the snazzy film noir "The Last Seduction," which starred Linda Fiorentino as the ultimate femme fatale. The perky interviewer asked him if he comes up with all those killer replies in real life. "Well, sure," the author stammered, "In my car … on the … way home."

Cinema's visuals are constantly evolving, but its dialogue is deteriorating. Why write eloquent English when it's just going to wind up translated into Turkish and Tagalog to serve as wadding between detonations?

It's time for something different, and Sally Potter's film "Yes" is a gloriously reactionary step backwards.

Shortly after 9/11, Potter, who is best known for her 1992 adaptation of Virginia Woolf's Orlando, began composing a scene illustrating the clash of civilizations between an Arab immigrant and a wealthy Western woman. She recalled, "The argument between the two lovers came out onto the page, for the most part, in iambic pentameter (ten syllables per line)… Perhaps it was an instinctive attempt to let the characters speak to each other on screen about things which are hard to express in normal conversation."

The screenplay ended up as rhyme of the most conspicuous kind: couplets. The expert actors in "Yes," led by three-time Oscar-nominee Joan Allen, the tall, severely blonde actress from Chicago's famed Steppenwolf theatre company, play it like Shakespearean blank verse, pausing at the end of sentences rather than at the end of lines, but the constant rhyming won't let us forget it's verse.

Because it's poetry, the dialogue can't even pretend to be realistic. This frees the characters to articulate impossibly literary lines that don't sound any more implausible than their most banal statements.

Many will hate "Yes," but I found it delightful, reminiscent of the pleasures of a musical. I hope Potter makes another verse film, allowing her actors to stress the rhymes. This movie's high point comes when Potter permits Sheila Hancock, who plays Allen's dying Communist aunt, to read her witty voice-over monologue as heroic couplets, blending Alexander Pope with Dr. Seuss: "Oh, you'll be sorry when I'm dead / I'm only joking, dear. I only said / That for a laugh. Although of course it's true."

In prose, Potter sounds like a doctrinaire leftist, but in verse she's more content to let her characters each have their say, airing issues that are more visible than discussed.

Allen -- like many contemporary actresses, such as Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett -- is extremely fair, and her character's olive-skinned Arab beau repeatedly admits that their difference in coloration both attracts and annoys him. Indeed, "Yes" and Potter's earlier "The Tango Lesson" illustrate anthropologist Peter Frost's new book Fair Women, Dark Men, which documents that this cultural preference has been found in most societies. Apparently, this is because women actually are "the fair sex," being slightly paler on average.

The man, a surgeon from shattered Beirut who can only find work as a chef in London, eventually realizes that his Muslim masculine pride can no longer tolerate being an invisible man. He demands of his mistress, a celebrated American embryologist, "From Elvis to Eminem, Warhol's art; / I know your stories, know your songs by heart. / But do you know mine?"

No, and like the rest of us, Potter's heroine isn't going to try to learn. Rather than offer to accompany her homesick lover back to Beirut for a visit, she demands he come with her to Havana, of all places, where she plans to bask in nostalgia for her late aunt's radicalism. I'm not sure Potter realizes what an awful person her adulterous heroine is.

Ironically, Cuba turns out, due to Castro's stultifying tyranny, to look like a well-preserved slice of the Eisenhower Era, full of '57 Chevies and Hemingway-worshipers. Potter doesn't quite get the joke, but at least her artistic daring makes up for her tedious politics.

Rated R for language and some sexual content.


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