Ed West Cinema
Acouple of years ago a book was published called Reel Bad Arabs, which listed, in encyclopaedia form, all the sinister and silly portrayals of Middle Easterners in American films through the ages. It inspired me to one day write something called Reel Bad Englishmen, because though we have not been at war with America since 1812, Hollywood has never given up making us the enemy, and neither have our own films done much to promote us.
So while Sally Potter, the English writer and director of Yes, deserves praise for her attempt to de-demonise the Levantine man, her compatriots once again get a rough ride from the big screen.
Potter started to write Yes on September 12, 2001. The story is of an affair between a Lebanese man and an Irish-American woman. The lead is a successful biologist whose marriage to an English politician, played by Sam Neill, is a sham. There is no love from her cheating, cold Anglo-Saxon husband. She falls in love with the poor immigrant cook (neither has a name) who approaches her at a dinner and says: “A woman left alone, I wouldn’t let such a beauty out of my sight.” At first, he looks like the type of slimy Mediterranean man us cold Anglo-Saxons fear will seduce our neglected womenfolk; he merely lacks the crazy glint of possessiveness that an American director would ask of Art Malik when playing some “crazy Arab terrorist” in a Hollywood blockbuster.
Little wonder that the wife goes for the Lebanese cook, who smiles sincerely, calls her “a queen” and neatly describes the multi-sect bloodbath in the Lebanon by using the metaphor of their national vegetable, the avocado. In response, she waxes lyrical about the potato and the many ways the people of Belfast eat it.
The lovers meet in a park, where he ponders the existence of God, the futility of religious fighting, and the purpose of the number zero, before walking her home and kissing her violently (which just goes to show that men are the same in all cultures). While away from his new colleen, the male protagonist divides a miserable existence between his tiny apartment and the kitchen he shares with three other dogsbodies; a black born-again Christian, who warns of the perils of women, money and the devil; a ginger Scouse racist atheist; and an older Scot who tries to mediate between his angry young flatmates, but who shares his colleagues’ disdain for the Arab treatment of women.
Not that he treats his lover with anything but romantic worship. The Beirut beau has a fundamental decency lacking in the heroine’s husband. “Doctors answer to a need, regardless of colour of creed,” he says, explaining how he tried to save the life of a Christian during the civil war.
But soon the cultural differences between Lebanese lover and Irish-American heroine come to the fore. During one row, the man shouts: “You think you’re the best, one life of yours worth all the rest.” He then ditches her. Bad timing, as it is at this moment that her husband also decides to end the marriage.
She heads off to Belfast to visit her dying aunt, a committed socialist whose last wish is that her niece visits Havana. This she does. She then contacts the lover, who is in now Beruit, and asks him to join her. But will he say “yes”, not just to her but to peace between East and West?
The film starts life as a five-minute argument between two lovers on either side of the clash of civilisations, which is why Yes is scripted entirely in iambic pentameters, a form that takes 10 syllables per line and is said to most resemble the rhythm of human thought.
Yet this trick is not enough to stop us all being dragged down with the film’s predictable reflections on the West’s spiritual weaknesses; the god-daughter’s obsession with beauty at all costs, the pair’s loveless, childless marriage and her sneering contempt for her best friend’s life choice as housewife and mother; and the depressing existence of skilled immigrants forced to work in the underbelly of London.
Still, at least Sam Neill’s performance as the joyless, emotionally constipated reptile gives me something to put under “Y” in my book.
Yes (Cert 15, 100 mins) is now showing at selected cinemas nationwide