Dialogues of the heart

by Kaori Shoji

“It wasn’t my intention to make any grandiose political statements here,” Sally Potter said in an interview to promote the release of her new film, “Yes,” in Japan. “I just wanted to show that dialogue and a relationship were possible between two people from two completely different cultures. Of course there are clashes. But ultimately, I think the important thing is to keep saying ‘yes.’ “

“Yes,” her eighth film, has been heralded Potter’s finest work to date and a breakthrough role for leading actress Joan Allen. In Tokyo shortly after the terrorist attacks in London, Potter spoke on women, men, love and . . . housework.

This is a movie that takes so many risks: the theme, of course; the fact that the dialogue is all in iambic pentameter; and the subject of female sexuality past the age of 50. Did you have fears about taking on all of that?

Fears, no. A lot of people expressed their concern that the iambic pentameter would be lost on an international audience, but when the film came out in the U.K., many didn’t even notice. I wrote the dialogue in verse, but I asked the cast to speak as naturally as they could and as far as I’m concerned, the verse thing is my little secret pet project. If people don’t notice it, that’s fine.

As for the theme, I think it would have been more difficult if the genders had been reversed: a Muslim woman and a white man, you know. The way it is in “Yes,” there were no ugly subtexts to overcome and the couple feels much more real.

The sexuality of a woman in her 50s . . . personally I don’t think there’s any problem talking about it. In the U.K., I’ve had men in their early 20s come up to me to say that it was the first time in their lives that they’ve cried watching a love story, and how much they identified with the woman.

The narrative is loosely told by a house-cleaner and she makes these acute, often painful observations about marriage and life while dust wiping. How do you feel about housework and cleaning?

To me, it’s often therapeutic. Sometimes I methodically go through the house and when the work is done feel incredibly restored. I’ve never thought of it as demeaning.

But we never see Joan Allen’s character doing any housework. The cleaner does everything, and her lover prepares their meals. Isn’t this reversal of gender roles unthinkable in the Muslim world?

You must remember that Joan’s character is a dedicated professional woman who is defined by her professional life. She spends most of her time in the office and on airplanes and, quite simply, she has no time for household tasks. If she had, or if she had received the proper training, perhaps her life would have been different. Women who work must hire help, and that’s that. But as she comes to know more about her lover she gets in touch with the sensual side of housework, and the pleasures or peace of mind it can give.

The story seems to splinter off in the latter half of the movie with the introduction of her aunt and the issue of the aunt seeing Cuba as a kind of communist paradise. Did you find it difficult to fit that in the story?

No, because I knew She and He needed a neutral ground if they were to see each other again, some place that was neither East or West. Cuba provided a compelling alternative, precisely because it’s a small communist country that has defied the U.S. and the logic of Western capitalism for so long. If they were to speak again, it would have to be a place like this, where the political subtexts were alien to them both.

I had anticipated that a U.S. audience would find the love relationship hard to accept because of the politics involved, but interestingly, when the film showed in the States, no one was offended by that. What did get to people was that the fact that she chose to go to Havana, and invited him to join her there. They couldn’t stomach the thought that a communist nation would be conducive to a sort of paradise where two people can possibly go and start over again. The reaction was quite instructional for me.

It seems as though the movie had a lot more empathy for “She” than “He,” and in the end, she’s presented with a wonderful gift.

I think that with a story like this the best thing you can do is give it the element of hope. After all, hope is what the word “yes” is all about, isn’t it? There were some who said they didn’t like the ending; it felt like I was being too easy on “She.” But I wonder if that’s really true. She throws up everything: her life, her house, her job and she boards a plane with nothing more than the clothes on her back.

It’s true that up until the breakup with her lover she never really thought about what it was to live as a Muslim in a white man’s world, or for a Muslim man to become the lover of a white woman. She had an arrogance about her, and that was condemned. But there’s a scene where she says nothing and just listens, listens intently to her lover say all these wounding things. She hears him out with fierce concentration and when he stops, tells him she wants to hear more.

I think it was this moment that she was forgiven, by him or by some higher power. It was this moment that she learned to be a real human being. For there is nothing in the world more important than for one person to listen, really listen, to another.