July 21-27, 2005

movies

Savage Innocence



yes i will again yes: Simon Abkarian, left, goes back for seconds of Joan Allen.

Yes and Me and You and Everyone We Know are as complicated as they are simple.

Simplicity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Of last week’s art-house releases, Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, has been roundly praised by critics for its “innocent” and “offbeat” qualities, while Sally Potter’s Yes has been roundly damned for its purported pretensions. (As one gauge, the former’s score at RottenTomatoes.com, which tracks overall critical response, is exactly twice the latter’s: 82 vs. 41 percent positive.) From a distance, Potter’s movie sounds intimidating: Its main characters, a Belfast-born, American-raised microbiologist trapped in an unhappy marriage (Joan Allen) and a Lebanese surgeon who has sought refuge in London (Simon Abkarian) are identified only as She and He; it addresses the relationship between the European and Arab worlds, but without explicit reference to current politics; and, oh yes, the dialogue is written in rhyming iambic pentameter.

Based on that précis, it would be easy to write Yes off as a highbrow muddle, as the critics of Variety, The New Yorker and The New York Times have been content to do. Easy, that is, until you actually watch it. Although Yes opens with a classically styled monologue, in which Shirley Henderson’s housecleaner addresses the camera in rhyming couplets, once the plot gets rolling, you hardly notice the structure of the dialogue. Potter has obviously instructed her actors to speak the lines as they would any others, allowing them to rush over breaks, insert pauses, even stutter occasionally, so that only rarely are you reminded that you’re listening to words arranged in 10-syllable clusters. Of course, that poses the question of why Potter bothered in the first place. Why write in the fashion of Shakespeare if you’re going to gloss over it in the execution? But the tension between the versified dialogue and the actors’ naturalistic line readings is precisely the point: Just as the unremarkable romance between He and She reflects greater tensions in the world, so the rhythm of their words reflects an underlying order of which even they are unaware.

Allen’s character, in the long tradition of frustrated movie wives, lives in a white-on-white house with her business-suited husband, Sam Neill. Their relationship all but dead, they have agreed to an open marriage, although he seems to do all the opening: In the opening scenes, the cleaner fishes a used condom out of the toilet. (Later, she warns that dirt is never cleaned; “it just gets pushed around.”) Allen’s ordered but vacant home life is reflected in the sterile emptiness of her laboratory, where she studies the process of conception. But although she styles herself as a rationalist agnostic, she refuses, at least where politics is concerned, to put a precise date on the moment life begins, and seems to draw quasi-mystical insights from her work: “Single is a word based on an illusion. / Life itself develops from a fusion.”

The most important fusion in Yes is the romance between She and He, which puts their individual desires in conflict with the rarely stated but always felt conflict between cultures. As she showed in the autobiographical The Tango Lesson, Potter is a master of midlife eroticism, a mixture of sexual and intellectual attraction that’s hotter, especially onscreen, than any mere entanglement of bodies. There’s some of that, too, notably a scene where He covertly brings She to orgasm under a cafe table and then slyly licks his fingers, but the air between Allen and Abkarian is so charged that such a scene is almost redundant. (Almost.) The actors’ intensity is matched by Aleksei Rodionov’s sensual cinematography, an earthy blend of light and texture that gives every frame its own electricity.

When She tells He, “We’re really not so different, you and I,” you may fret that Yes is one of those movies where vast cultural conflicts are overcome by a few hot moments between the sheets. But take a look at your watch: The movie still has more than an hour to run. Although their obvious sexual chemistry overwhelms the difference in their backgrounds at first, it intensifies the conflict later on, during a lover’s quarrel in which the words “war” and “terrorist” are thrown around as terms of abuse.

The characters’ names and its classicist structure make it tempting to read Yes as an allegory, but it’s a strength and a weakness of the movie that it doesn’t totally parse as such. Especially given the subtleties of the actors’ performances, She and He are too individualized, too complicated, to read as symbols of their respective cultures. If that takes some of the bite out of the movie’s politics, it’s also what makes it possible to watch without tearing your hair out.

The storybook naiveté of Me and You and Everyone We Know at first seems like the antithesis of Potter’s elaborations. Me and You, the feature debut of the performance artist and short filmmaker Miranda July, takes place in a primary-color world; even though it’s set in a mundane stretch of an unnamed suburb, every location feels somehow strange, like a place you’ve never been, or have been and forgotten. In July’s world, the adults are barely more than children, and the children are practically adults. Christine (July), a struggling artist, and Richard (John Hawkes), a shoe salesman and single father, are smitten with each other from the first time they meet, but it’s a struggle for either to complete a sentence; in the movie’s opening moments, he sets his hand ablaze to compensate for his inability to put his feelings into words. The movie’s kids, contrariwise, are budding wordsmiths, especially when it comes to words they aren’t supposed to know. John’s two sons (Miles Thompson and Brandon Ratcliff) engage in sexually explicit chats on the internet, while two neighborhood girls (Natasha Slayton and Najarra Townsend) leave provocative notes for Richard’s co-worker (Brad Henke) outside his house.

It’s almost too precious for words. Me and You teeters on the edge of the insufferable tweeness of faux-naif indie rock; it’s not surprising she released several albums on the Kill Rock Stars label. But it becomes clear that July isn’t playing innocent so much as using innocence as a tool to slip past her audience’s defenses. The movie engendered the kind of uncomfortable, crawling-out-of-your-skin feeling I get when I’m subjected to bad performance art, except it’s clear that July knows exactly what she’s doing, simplifying her narrative to evoke the rituals hidden in daily life and the mysterious connections that bind people without their knowledge. In a sense, like Yes, Me and You and Everyone We Know hints that life has a structure we can sense if not see, but rather than making that structure explicit, July traces the space around it, like iron filings moved by magnetic currents.

Yes Written and directed by Sally Potter A Sony Classics release Now playing at Ritz at the Bourse recommended recommended

Me and You and Everyone We Know Written and directed by Miranda July An IFC Films release Now playing at Ritz East recommended recommended


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