In the beginning, it’s subtle, almost not existing, but as Sally Potter’s film “Yes” (2004) progresses, you’ll notice that the characters rhyme when speaking. Part lesson in the technicalities of cleaning and human skin, part questioning of desires and insufficient happiness, Potter presents a picture that is undeniably beautiful but also filled with unintentional humor. Joan Allen plays an Irish biologist, a woman with no name; she is simply “She.” Married to Anthony (Sam Neil) in an arrangement that stifles, “Yes” is about how a chance encounter with another man brings Her much needed laughter and the motivation to live a more fulfilling life.
This meeting occurs within the first ten minutes of “Yes” when She and Anthony attend a dinner party. The guests are all in one part of the house, but She is in the dining room. Finishing touches on the table are still being made; She stands somewhat awkwardly but doesn’t feel out of place. He (Simon Abkarian), a chef, enters the room to check up on the dinner table and He sees Her. Drawn to the emptiness that pulses around Her, He walks over and tells Her that He would never let such a beautiful woman out of his sight. We see She is moved by His words and She knows She is too. Perhaps embarrassed by this unexpected attention, She retreats to the bathroom, repeating in Her head the praises sung by this man She had just met.
Dinner commences and everyone is enjoying themselves. Drinking and eating, smiling and whispering, but not She. She barely touches her food; instead She looks at Her husband across the table seated between two cheerful women. She snickers inside. This dinner is a waste of time, or is it? He casually saunters by to stand behind Her husband. He makes a face, gestures with his hands and delights to see Her grin. Moments later, through security tape footage—which, remember, has no sound—we see He and She at the top of the stairs. They talk. She gives Him Her card. In the following days, She goes out of town on business, He calls to set up a rendezvous. She hesitates but agrees because She wants to see Him too. They meet in a park, take a walk, and tell each other about themselves. If you didn’t notice the rhyming speech before this scene, it is because there likely wasn’t any, but once this park moment comes and goes, you’ll hear it from everybody. The Dr. Seuss effect is more obvious in some characters and less in others, but it’s true—they all rhyme when they talk and as the film moves along, it is clear that they won’t stop, not even when they get angry, not even when someone dies.
It takes a couple of minutes for you to realize the middle or end of one sentence sounds like the last word of the previous line. You suppose there is some explanation. After all, She was telling Him about being Irish, religious conflict, and something about Her aunt. Might She be reciting a poem or experiencing a moment of poetic eloquence? Could it be a game, an inside joke, a conversation overly formal? You think Her communications will revert back to normal, but it doesn’t and you’ll see it wouldn’t when He starts to rhyme. “Yes” gently misleads your ears. You assume that surely when you hear the other characters converse, they won’t succumb to verse. But alas, they too play the role of spoken word artist. Interestingly, the characters speak with different rhythms, pauses, and rhyming degrees. For instance, His co-workers in the kitchen express their cares with paired rhymes. They would go to a mountain, see a fountain, try for a beach just within reach by boat or plane, anything to escape the mundane routine of weekday living. As they sing the Lord’s name on high or complain about feminine sting, you’ll wish it was open-mic night and the kitchen was really a stage.
I could call speaking in verse unconventionally cleaver, but whether this technique works depends on how pleasantly it delivers. It’s kind of cool for a while, especially when different characters complement each other’s rhyme schemes, but it grows tiresome and at times comedic. Do they know they talk the way they do? The hope that unfeeling Anthony is the exception, that he has not surrendered to poetry, is smashed as it becomes apparent he rhymes too. She and Her husband’s maid (Shirley Henderson) addresses the camera in the same way. A combination of direct and slant rhyming, she divulges to the audience information about skin cells, the illusion of cleaning, and her employers’ marriage crumbling. The maid is funny positively, her emergence on screen makes us react with glee because the lighting in her scenes is rather unique. Then again, the director is known for stunning visuals, surrounding people and places with an unusual quality, as if their world isn’t real even in contexts of bonafide history and recognizable geography.
From “Orlando” (1992) to “The Tango Lesson” (1997) to “The Man Who Cried” (2000), Sally Potter and her lighting and set design collaborators know how to create an atmosphere subdued or exaggerated by certain colors that accentuate mystery and prolong the magic of this cinematic tapestry. Nonetheless, predominant blues interrupted by warmer hues cannot hide that after a while, “Yes” begins to watch like an adaptation of mediocre epic poetry. Maybe there’s a reason, something beyond “just because it can.” That the characters express themselves with the absurdity of their rhyming words alludes to the stupidity of She wanting to cheat on Her husband with He. The affair is not free from drama. He feels it wrong at one point and second-guesses his eagerness to open the temptation box with His Pandora. Joan Allen performs well, some of the rhymes are genuinely smart, but it is near hell to watch over sixty minutes of this Seuss gimmick. Poetic dialogue could be testament to Potter’s ingenuity; unfortunately her film fails in this respect. You can’t accept and move past the characters’ speech idiosyncrasies, and as a result, you see only pretension.