Sally Potter

b. 19 September, 1949, London, England

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“A state of loving detachment”: Sally Potter’s Impassioned and Intellectual Cinema

Part of the goal was to evoke a state of mind in which people are thinking and feeling simultaneously, and not just one or the other – reflecting on their emotions as they’re having them, a state of loving detachment really. (1)

– Sally Potter, on writing Yes in iambic pentameter

In a cathartic and deeply intimate compliment, director Jane Campion describes her attachment to Potter’s Orlando:

When my son died, on the third day I was devastated, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I went to see Orlando. It was so beautiful. This earth can be transformed. There are moments of extreme wonder…and that’s all worth living for. (2)

Throughout over 30 years of directing, Sally Potter has proclaimed her own belief in cinema’s transformative capacity; while the substances of this transformation (the elements, catalysts and results) have varied over her career, Potter consistently stands by this credo. While many artists might believe in art’s change-inducing capacities, Potter’s fervour combines with her accomplishments to establish her stronghold within the cinematic canon. Through sophisticated film style, Potter explores the capacity of aesthetic and human intimacy to transcend categories (of gender, sexuality, religion, culture, politics, etc.) that both limit and define experience.

Biography and Training

A modern renaissance woman, Potter writes, directs, composes for and – in The Tango Lesson – acts in her films. Born 19 September 1949 in London to an artistic family (her father was a poet; her mother, a musician; her grandmothers, actresses), Charlotte Sally Potter left school at 16 to study filmmaking. After an apprenticeship at the London Filmmakers’ Co-op, Potter created experimental shorts, Black and White (1969) and Play (1971); and her Daily (1971) and Combines (1972) coordinated film projections with live dance and musical performances. Studying composition at St. Martin’s School of Art, and dance and choreography at the London School of Contemporary Dance, Potter rounded out her multi-faceted aesthetic training by collaborating on theatrical and musical performances in Berlin and Moscow, and throughout North America and Europe.

Emerging as a filmmaker in the 1970s, Potter “came of age…within the force field of two powerful cultural movements: structural film and feminist theory. From the former, she inherited an appreciation for experimental cinema of a conceptual bent, and from the latter, she gained an understanding of the ways in which issues of gender might be integrated into works of art.” (3) Within experimental and feminist form, her complex films also evoke the styles and themes of prominent art film directors (e.g. Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni). Comparable to choreographers-turned-filmmakers Maya Deren and Yvonne Rainer, Potter’s cinematographic gravity creates a lyricism akin to choreographic grace: “in her heightened awareness of…the choreographic nature of daily life…Potter’s experience with dance most subtly, yet most profoundly, informs her work.” (4)

Film Overview


Moving toward her more recent lyrical engagement with spectatorial expectation and visual pleasure, Potter’s early films interrogate form and subject through experimental and feminist modes and themes. In 1971, poet Adrienne Rich writes that “Re-vision – the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes…is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.” (5) A retelling of Puccini’s La Bohème through Mimi’s (Colette Laffont) point of view, Potter’s 16 mm black and white cult hit Thriller (1979) overtly equates revision with survival; the film invokes formal conventions to interrogate the narrative necessity of Mimi’s death. Inscribing this inquiry within allusion to female murder victims (Thriller cites Bernard Hermann’s screeching Psycho score), Mimi questions the conventions that locate meaning in the death of a young beautiful woman. Scripted, edited, produced and directed by Potter, Thriller transforms the opera into, as the title suggests, a thriller that uncovers operatic form’s generic and gendered hypocrisy.

In both plot and production, The Gold Diggers (1983) equalises and explores the exchange value of money and women (the all-woman production crew was paid equally). Starring Laffont and Julie Christie and continuing Thriller‘s generic interrogation, this musical comedy/adventure features two female protagonists (one a bank employee and the other a “golden” celebrity) who self-reflexively search for meaning within narrative conventions and generic iconography. Potter acknowledges the negative impact of this film on her career: “I was cinematically in the wilderness for a decade…it failed to do what I hoped it would do…I wanted people to be able to engage it on the most complex and subtle level if they wished, or at the surface level of sheer intoxication of the senses.” (6) Impatient with the anti-narrative experimentation (given BFI’s support, the film needed to “work” on some public level), reviewers and audiences panned the film; Janet Maslin carps: “by any reasonable earthly standard, this thing – a 1983 oddity, sort of a feminist deconstructionist, riddle-filled anti-music…is pure torture…never has the clock moved more slowly.” (7)

Potter gradually incorporates stylistic virtuosity built upon (instead of rejecting or overlooking) these structuralist and feminist experimental beginnings. Winner of the European Film Academy’s Felix Award for Best Young European Film of 1993, Orlando‘s success offered Potter greater public visibility and critical admiration. Vincent Canby describes Orlando as “Ms. Potter’s triumph. With the firmest but lightest of touches, she has spun gossamer.” (8) As an adolescent, Potter thought Virginia Woolf’s novel a “liberating book because it broke all boundaries of time, gender, space, and place in a very light, kind of intoxicating way…as if Virginia Woolf was really in love with history and with imagery and, of course, in love with language. I remember the book burning its way visually into my mind.” (9) After eight years of scripting and securing funding, Potter made the film on a $4 million budget (studio executives at Sundance estimated a $20 million cost). Regarding Orlando, Potter reflects: “It’s the first film that I’ve made that I’m pleased with, the first time in my filmmaking life when I’ve begun to feel a sense of mastery of the form…I begin to have a sense of purpose. It makes me remember why I am on earth.” (10) Exceedingly positive reviews rhapsodise over the lush visuals and emboldened cinematic translation. Admiring Potter’s able portrayal of this risqué macrocosmic subject, critics often praise her in language of Orlando’s quirks: “Ms. Potter’s extraordinary film promises not to fade, or wither, or grow old”; (11) “Intense and incredibly seductive in the manner of great directors from Scorsese to Agnieszka Holland, Potter is as androgynous-looking as Orlando, with a coolly analytic intelligence that, surprisingly, is rooted in a utopian mind-set.” (12)

In proportion to Orlando‘s grandiose historical scale, The Tango Lesson (1997) self-reflexively portrays a filmmaker, Sally (played by Potter herself), who, upon struggling to finance her generically risqué Hollywood murder mystery, turns to tango lessons (and eventual romance) with renowned dancer Pablo Veron (played by Veron). By “metaphorically violating the ‘180-degree rule’ and moving from behind to in front of the camera, Potter broke the normal pattern for female film artists, who typically move from screen star to director.” (13) In elegant black and white cinematography evocative of The Cranes are Flying and with homage to innumerable Hollywood musicals (particularly Singin’ in the Rain), The Tango Lesson quietly explores the enworldedness and aesthetic resonance of personal expression and intimacy.

The Man Who Cried

Whereas Orlando features a character initially unbound by mortal pressures, The Man Who Cried (2000) features an exceedingly mortal young Russian woman, Susie (Christina Ricci), who flees from Nazi invasion of her small town and seeks out paternal reunion (with her father, who left before her), friendship (with an opportunistic stage diva, played by Cate Blanchett), and romance (with gypsy Cesar, played by Johnny Depp). Rose Capp describes these characters’ “oddly hollowed out, detached presence. Ostensibly a classic, inquiring Potter character, Susie is…the least proactive and most underwhelming heroine [of Potter’s oeuvre]…Susie remains a frustratingly blank canvas, shaped by but rarely shaping other characters or events.” (14) Criticised as “a serious misstep” (15) and “terminally silly”, (16) The Man Who Cried earns praise for its visual style; J. Hoberman claims that it “gives bad movies a good name” by resourcefully employing a “canny minimalism” of “cool visuals and overheated narrative” that, unfortunately, must work to cover up “her own ludicrous script.” (17) Judging her affective shortcomings, Variety claims “moments of authentic emotion are scarce in Potter’s cliché-driven script.” (18) Champion of auteur theory, Andrew Sarris favourably compares The Man Who Cried with her previous works: “Ms. Potter somehow avoids the avant-garde mannerisms that fatally distanced her previous efforts: The Gold Diggers, despite the luminous presence in the cast of Julie Christie, and Orlando, with its ultimately tiresome gender games, which came over more felicitously on the pages of Virginia Woolf’s novel than on the unforgivingly sober screen of Ms. Potter’s genteel fancies.” (19) Sarris praises the film’s creation of “characters, who do not so much move us as fascinate us in a detached manner as we contemplate how they cope.” (20)

This combination of detachment and fascination, which inspires our contemplation, might fairly describe Potter’s oeuvre as a whole. She toys with the degree to which we can know another person (spectators in relation to character, and characters in relation to each other); the withholding of and indulgence in such revelation enables both a seduction and a distance.

Themes and Reception

Potter’s curious and complex protagonists struggle for genuine expression and uncompromised harmony within macrocosmic realms. Invested in the meanings within and existence beyond value-ascribing identity labels, Potter describes her authorial process and signature: “I always work under the illusion that I’m starting from scratch…But the questions of belief, mortality, personal and political relations, male-female dynamics, identity and exile are…running themes that have taken different forms in my work. And there’s always the excitement of exploring new forms esthetically. The love of the form itself is very strong, balanced by an intuitive sense of what’s possible for an audience – what will push them away and what will draw them in. It’s a private juggling act – a balance of passions.” (21) Within this love of form and hope for audience affectation arises the central tension of Potter’s oeuvre. Within this stylistic negotiation of seduction and alienation, Potter thematically explores human epistemology and ontology.


Regarding Orlando, Potter explains: “I’m trying to restore to people that sense of themselves which has nothing to do with gender, time, or circumstance”; she expresses interest in “the human spirit, and the true meaning of why we’re here.” (22) Potter understands Orlando as being “about the claiming of an essential self, not just in sexual terms. It’s about the immortal soul.” (23) Passages and sentiments such as these comprise her expressed aesthetic. She repeatedly describes her aspiration to discover who we are beyond identity categories. Praise of her oeuvre accordingly mobilise language of universals and essence: “Attempting to extol the forces of art, history, politics, and gender that have shaped Western civilisation, [Orlando] is nothing less than the story of a soul’s journey through time.” (24) Desson Thomson describes Potter’s most recent Yes (2004) as “a unique, bold adventure of the soul,” (25) and Cynthia Lucia calls it “a tour de force in which language, sound, image, and thematic content work in complete accord, each element extending and building upon the other, each adding texture and resonance to a remarkably unified whole.” (26)

Potter’s attempts to balance form and spectatorial alienation/seduction divide critics’ admiration and impatience. Celebrants of Potter’s oeuvre attest to their affective involvement with the film, and detractors describe her work as repetitious, empty, alienating and unfeeling. Regarding Potter’s script for Yes, A.O. Scott criticises the film as “a bad poem…her intricate measured lines amount to doggerel, not art” (27) and Variety claims that the film “ultimately has nothing of any real depth or profundity to say, but a thousand self-consciously complex ways of saying it.” (28) The Chicago Tribune‘s Allison Benedikt diagnoses Yes as “the meaningless concoction of a writer trying too hard to make a statement.” (29) Calling Orlando “hollow…smug…and self-satisfied,” Kenneth Turan complains: “any kind of emotional connection to match [Orlando’s] carefully constructed look… is simply not to be had.” (30) In dramatic divergence with Campion’s affection for Orlando, Anthony Lane describes Tilda Swinton’s Orlando as “so uptight I could have killed her”; he claims that The Tango Lesson “left [him] numb,” and, regarding Yes, “You may get off on this enthralling stuff, / But after half an hour I’d had enough.” (31)

At the very least, these critics’ impatience and indifference point to the fact that aesthetic “moments of extreme wonder” (Campion’s phrase, describing Orlando) remain exceedingly personal and unscripted. Potter’s cinema actually tries to understand this variability of and potential connectivity through human aesthetic judgment; The Tango Lesson‘s Sally and Pablo debate over the senses through which they perceive and make meaning (she sees, and he moves); their differences heighten their attempts to communicate across these differences, while also pointing to their unique individuality. Potter’s thematic tension between individual and world crystallises within this aesthetic expression and perception, and her films increasingly build upon and complicate the subjective and embodied tenets of this balance.

Cinematic Bodies

While Thriller “feels ill at ease engaging [the body’s] visual representation in more overt or direct ways,” Elena del Rio points out that this film’s “most poignant and haunting moments are those that restore to analysis the force of affect through sensual and bodily elements.” (32) Aesthetically balancing subjectivity and embodiment, Potter increasingly integrates these moments of affective equation of sensuality and physicality. Her films gradually feature a visual physicality, including Orlando‘s facial and landscape/silhouette close-ups, The Man Who Cried‘s bedazzling cinematographic affection for Cate Blanchett’s chiseled facial expressions and Ricci’s creamy skin, gentle mouth and voluptuous bosom. In Yes, the camera exceeds the body’s boundaries and vision’s limits by featuring cellular physiology through the protagonist’s point of view.

Within this trajectory, Catherine Fowler notes The Tango Lesson‘s “emphasis on a sensual gaze alert to light, movement, and shades in black and white or colour and that therefore creates highly tangible spaces that charge the bodies moving through them with energy.” (33) In contrast to Thriller‘s brave yet awkward imaging of bodies, The Tango Lesson affords an erotic kinetics in which Potter’s role behind and in front of the camera inscribes the images (and the bodies therein) with an invested sensuality. Corinn Columpar describes the kinetic sensuality apparent in The Tango Lesson: “all bodies both make and bear meaning continually throughout the film…a hand gesture can communicate the word croissant…a turning of the head can betray jealousy…a missed dance step can signal discord between dancers/lovers.” (34) Columpar claims that “[s]ome of the most satisfying moments of the film…are those in which Sally and Pablo seem to transcend their linguistic differences (so to speak) and the lived body and the imaged body merge.” (35)

Yes as Stylistic and Thematic Exemplar of Potter’s Oeuvre

The Tango Lesson

Foreshadowing scenes of conflict and intimacy in Yes, in an early scene in The Tango Lesson, Sally and Pablo shed a tear together, revealed in quiet and matching close-ups, upon mutually understanding their shared Jewish heritage, which overwhelms their differences. Importantly, a later scene reveals her description of this sequence to Pablo: “And you reply: ‘I am a dancer…and a Jew.’…then a tear rolls down my cheek and a tear rolls down your cheek.” Just as Pablo and Sally connect (and are scripted to connect) across difference, Yes‘ characters allegorise and undermine this idealism. Yes explicitly refers to and complicates Potter’s previous themes of individuation and universality. In The Tango Lesson‘s final dialogue, within a two-shot that reveals reciprocal affectionate looks, Sally answers Pablo’s concern (“I’m afraid I’ll disappear without leaving a trace”): “Perhaps that’s why we met.” Potter implicitly continues her response through Yes‘ housekeeper’s (Shirley Henderson) direct address: “we never disappear, / Despite it being what we all most fear…Every single creature feeds another…When we expire perhaps we change, at most, / But never vanish.” (36) While this and other correlations among her films establish a dynamic inquiry into mortality, history and affectivity, so too does her style situate these films within a trajectory at once linear (styles evolve and build upon one another) and contiguous (key sequences in The Tango Lesson, for example, echo the music accompanying Orlando’s glistening revelation of his/her changed gender; wine glasses in the foreground of a shot impede and poeticise our perspective in both Yes and The Tango Lesson).

Compelled by post 9/11 “urgency, impotence, helplessness, and [the] need to do something with [cinema],” Potter began writing Yes as an “argument, East and West, but between two individuals who are in love – a man from the Middle East and a woman from the West – and have them speak out about their respective states of anguish.” (37) Eventually, these characters – named “He” (Simon Abkarian) and “She” (Joan Allen) – debate the limits of human experience (when does life begin and end?), religious and secular faith, maternal and career success, political and economic imperialism, racial and cultural prejudice, sexual and Platonic intimacy, etc. Idealising his beloved, He announces to She, “you are the one. The light of day, / The velvet night, the single rose, the hand / I want to hold, the secret country, land / of all my longings.” (38) And in post-orgasmic breathlessness, She declares “Before I knew you, now I know / I was not living…Oh my love: you hold me and I melt…Call me whore!…The names you give / Me – names I never would forgive / If spoken to me in the street – /Somehow, from you, my love, they’re sweet.” (39) And yet, in the film’s climactic confrontation, He and She bitterly exchange insults in accordance with social roles they play (he criticises her as a blond American imperialist; she calls him a terrorist, etc.).

Shaken by her elderly aunt’s death, She travels alone to Cuba (though she has encouraged He, now in Lebanon, to meet her). While the stark whites and blues colour scenes of brittle and cold tension, this final setting’s warm blues and yellows soften and ease this otherwise icy palette. Arriving to her hotel room, She removes her shoes, closes her eyes, and takes a long breath; her gesture of overdue relaxation occurs within the camera’s zoom into a facial close-up. Synchronous with this zoom, the score holds a tremolo, aurally sustaining this focus and relaxation, a tightening and unwinding of her body. The slight quaverings of this sustained note invoke change and duration – a correspondence of non-diegetic music with image that flags an important turn in the film: style reveals (or responds to) subjectivity in ways other than stilted formal iambic pentameter or a point of view shot. In experiencing this tremolo synchronously with this sun-filled and sea-allusive palette and facial close-up of eased features and closed eyes, we find a comparable spectatorial relief. Just as watching someone’s chest rise and fall can inspire our synchronised breathing, this multi-sensory easing of tension invites our own shared respite (aligning the screen and spectatorial subject).

After a restorative (suggested by the rosy/coral palette that accentuates her flushed cheeks and lips) run, she sits on her bed and prepares a confession/prayer/spiritual inquiry before her digital video camera. She pleads to her camera: “Oh, god, can you forgive me for not believing in you?” Seconds later, she’s beckoned by a hotel staff member: “Senorita!” to greet He who has surprisingly arrived. His timing suggests God’s affirmative forgiveness of her doubt, yet his arrival also takes precedence over God’s presence (her religious self-reflection giving way to welcoming him). Again abandoning scripted iambic pentameter, She and He sit, silently and still, in a room flattered (sunlight streams across their perpendicular pose) by the world beyond the room. The scale and frame of this reunion posture exactly match that of her confession/monologue; this couple’s silent reunion visually and narratively supplants her earlier solitary spiritual musings. They sit posed in a portrait of perfectly composed vectors and dimensions: his horizontal to her vertical, their asymmetry inscribing the necessity of change to their coupling (things off balance will try to find balance). Warm golds and blues of both interior colours and natural lighting reconcile their pairing with the world outside, the world within the room, the ways they are in the world, and the ways they are together.


Yes‘ penultimate sequence features a close-up hand-held shot of these lovers’ impassioned embracing on the shore. Their close-up kiss graphically matches the doubling cells in the next shot, a correlation heightened by the dissolve that conflates the shapes. In the latter frame, microscopic cells divide in an act of creation; in the former frame, two characters come together, a jointure that creates a couple. The division of cells equates with the coupling of characters, the microscopic and the human dissolving together through a cinematic edit. In a Whitmanesque ascription of a collective plurality to an “I”, Potter asks her characters to be particular and universal, human and cellular, single and coupled, at once.

Potter’s Charmed Spaces

Critics of her verbose formality and cool distance miss the redemption that this final sequence offers. Reminiscent of Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, in which the pressured close-ups give way to a resplendent ending, Yes‘ verbose and rhythmic script gives way to a sunlit silence within which the lovers reunite in the moments immediately following her pleas for God’s forgiveness. Whether an answer to or undermining of her prayers, his timely arrival conventionally creates a couple; yet the agonising soul-searching and penetrating arguments that preceded this moment render this coincidence somehow more earned and less trite. Potter’s difficult diegetic conflicts find at least stylistic resolution within these sequences as if breaths, as if cinematic rooms in which to breathe, and the intake feels all the more relieving and necessary in contrast with the surrounding pressure.

Her films have increasingly allowed themselves these moments in which, for example, saturated colours and resplendent facial close-ups reveal both a benevolent and careful cinematic aesthetic. In Orlando, Potter’s extreme close-up panning along Swinton’s naked curves create a landscape indulgent in visual pleasure, sexualised and desirously charged (without exploiting or sensationalising the body). Potter’s gaze transforms sensual physical curves into a landscape, this creation of a world from minutiae and inscribing into the body’s lines a combined gravity (body becomes ground, hills, valleys) and luminosity (the surface aglow as if experiencing light’s mingling with epidermis and/or earthly ground). While Potter’s aesthetic gives in to visual pleasure, her intellectual cinema makes us earn the pleasure we discover – a labour that reaps innumerable rewards; the payoff exceeds that of readily apprehensible and comprehensible “eye-candy” film.

Evocative of Antonioni’s “stark and unfeeling landscapes”, (40) Potter’s cool settings nonetheless situate characters who struggle for subjective expression in ways both self-defeating yet ultimately hopeful. For example, Orlando explains to his beloved Sasha (Charlotte Valandrey) that he’s sad “because [he] cannot bear this happiness to end”; this conversation occurs amidst a starkly monochromatic icescape. In an expression of romantic intimacy and human futility, Orlando tries to describe his inability to reconcile this tension between ephemera and duration; and this dialogue occurs within a visual frame drained of colour and warmth. Like Antonioni’s cinema, the landscape figures “stark and unfeeling”, while the characters strive for expression therein. This hope and yearning invokes Bergman’s cinema: characters shamefully and shamelessly articulate the futility of human intimacy yet nonetheless yearn to be understood.

In Bergman’s portraits of shame and difficulty, of faithlessness and despair, Jessie Kalin notes the places “where despair can be replaced by joy, fear of life by its celebration, the dance of death by a dance of life.” (41) In Bergman’s films, “[t]hese experiences are perhaps the most fragile and ephemeral elements…they are often magical moments…sometimes they occur as real events…sometimes they are moments that we, as viewers, can notice but whose importance escapes those involved.” (42) Described by Peter Cowie as “charmed spaces”, these sequences “have a timeless quality…Bergman’s visions provide both distance and involvement, both perspective and satisfaction, and thus have some privileged status over their counter-images.” (43)


Instead of arising from script or story, Potter’s charmed spaces conflate time and space in a convergence of narrative layering and an evocative emergence of stylistic ingenuity: Orlando‘s throbbing piano chords pronouncedly accompany Orlando’s self-reliant picking up of her heavy dress and jaunting through the garden maze (and from one historical epoch to another); invoking a surrealist cinema, Potter’s temporal and spatial illogic yet make senses within the story. A buoyant spilling over with excess, style pushes Orlando through into another time and space. These points of excess ground the film within an attractive abundance. Potter’s austere style sets in relief these charmed spaces: Orlando’s dark-irised starry close-up as she sits against a thick tree, calmly observing her young spirited daughter’s taking up a video camera; the light that sifts through broad windows and falls upon covered furniture, while Orlando awkwardly adjusts to the burdening width of female dress; the microscopic point of view shots of cell division in Yes; the burning warfields through which an increasingly pregnant Orlando runs in an equation of maternity and modernisation. Critics often downplay these cinephilic sequences to focus on (and, often, dismiss) her cinema as heady, intellectual and steely. Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir acknowledges Potter’s “reputation as a cerebral filmmaker”, but insists “that’s not fair; she has a tremendous feeling for the sensuous nature of the medium.” (44)

Potter’s Aesthetic Conviction

The featurette “Finding Scene 54” (Adventure Pictures, 2005, available on the Yes DVD) includes a sequence of black and white digital video: Potter sits with Allen and Abkarian at a table in front of a window. Intertitles explain that America and Britain have just occupied Iraq and “This is the last opportunity to rehearse the scene”; Potter responds to this recent political occupation with tearful overwhelm: “this scene [their climactic confrontation] is carrying incredible responsibility, given what’s happened in Iraq…the world’s going to get blown up if we don’t find a way that the East and West speak to each other. That’s what this scene is for.” At once a rally and a self-reflection, Potter offers “if we can get it right, if these characters who’ve travelled all this way, taken us all the way through the story…to establish their love for each other…and now they’ve got to speak for the people who can’t speak.” Given the video quality and her crying, Potter’s words are difficult to discern precisely, but she seems to implicate humanity in general (a collective responsibility for future generations) and simultaneously to pare the “we” [if we can get it right] to the trio at the table. Her belief in the scene’s capacity to reconcile and directly dialogue with actual world conflict seems to overestimate her contribution. But how can we not admire her fervent faith in cinematically affecting and creating worlds both intimate and global?

Regarding Yes, Potter explains that “[i]n times of political extremity or urgency it is necessary to reconnect with transcendent, metaphysical dimensions – to remember what lies behind or beyond the impermanent, immediate realities…this is something cinema can do – make links between layers of existence and evoke the visible world.” (45) Claiming that her intention in Yes was to “humanise” the other, Potter aspires to nothing less than art that affects the macrocosmic/world by working within the microcosmic/human. Indeed, how we think about alterity can collapse stereotypes and enable understanding that underpins these conflicts. Her striving for films that enable this empathy seems at once egotistic, humanistic and essential to any artistic endeavour. As they rehearse, both Allen and Abkarian cry, wipe their tears with tissue, and console each other; at one point, Potter sits beside Allen, their backs to the camera, and Allen nuzzles her face wearily into Potter’s shoulder. For better or worse, this featurette presents a filmmaker who cries with her actors, who holds up their exhaustion, who empathises with and encourages their feeling, such that they together might evoke comparable spectatorial response.


Despite her difficult films, Potter somehow manages to create sequences of closure that – if not narratively “happy” – at least feel stylistically complete: in Orlando‘s fantastical closure in the meadow, Orlando’s daughter (Jessica Swinton) wields the digital video camera while a flying angel (Jimmy Somerville) sings from the sky in falsetto “we are joined, we are one, with the human face”, and Orlando stares into the camera in close-up with a knowing and calm gaze. The Tango Lesson cinematographically dances a dancing couple happily through the end credits. The Man Who Cried‘s literal Hollywood ending reunites Suzie with her ailing father as they sing together in the hospital. An answer to or supplanting of prayer, Yes‘ creation of a couple precedes the affirmative direct address by the housekeeper (echoing Ulysses‘ Molly Bloom): “There’s no such thing as nothing, not at all… I’d guess / That ‘no’ does not exist. There’s only ‘yes.’” (46)

Progressing toward cinematic pleasure and stylistic virtuosity, Potter’s films create articulate and complex characters who demand substantive connection, who remain optimistic amidst all that they unblinkingly understand to be difficult, and who find joy in proportion to their high expectations. Far from locating meaning in a heroine’s death (a la La Bohème), Potter’s closures feature characters exceedingly mortal; far cries from Thriller‘s contentious and aggressive counter-narrative, Potter’s recent films balance passions both intellectual and pleasurable. Despite Potter’s insistence upon discovering who we are beyond categories, perhaps the essence to which she would consent her externally imposed label might be this “great directors” designation.


  1. Cynthia Lucia, “Saying ‘Yes’ to Taking Risks: An Interview with Sally Potter”, Cineaste, vol. 30 no. 4, 2005, pp. 24–31: 29.
  2. Kathleen Murphy, “Jane Campion’s Passage to India”, Film Comment, no. 36, January/February 2000, p. 30.
  3. Lucy Fischer, “’Dancing through the Minefield’: Passion, Pedagogy, Politics, and Production in The Tango Lesson”, Cinema Journal, vol. 43 no. 3, 2004, pp. 42–58: 42.
  4. Corinn Columpar, “The Dancing Body: Sally Potter as Feminist Auteure” in Jacqueline Levitin, Judith Plessis, and Valerie Raoul (eds), Women Filmmakers: Refocusing, University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver, 2002, pp. 108–116: 111.
  5. Adrienne Rich, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision” in Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (eds), The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, 2nd ed., W.W. Norton, New York, 1996. 1982.
  6. David Ehrenstein, “Out of the Wilderness: An Interview with Sally Potter”, Film Quarterly, vol. 47 no. 1, 1993, pp. 2–7: 3-4.
  7. Janet Maslin, “Julie Christie in ‘Gold Diggers’”, New York Times, 12 February 1988, p. C22.
  8. Vincent Canby, “Witty, Pretty, Bold, A Real She-Man”, New York Times, 19 March 1993, p. C1.
  9. Pat Dowell, “Demystifying Traditional Notions of Gender: An Interview with Sally Potter”, Cineaste, vol. 20 no. 1, 1993, pp. 16–17: 16.
  10. Amy Taubin, “About Time”, Village Voice, 22 June 1993, p. 62.
  11. Caryn James, “’Orlando,’ Like Its Hero(ine), Is One for the Ages”, New York Times, 6 June 1993, p. A17.
  12. Taubin, p. 62.
  13. Fischer, her emphasis, p. 46.
  14. Rose Capp, “Crocodile Tears: Sally Potter’s The Man Who Cried, Senses of Cinema, accessed 7 February 2006.
  15. Deborah Young, “The Man Who Cried”, 18–24 September 2000, p. 37.
  16. Scott Foundas, “Yes”, Variety, 20–26 September 2004, p. 61.
  17. J. Hoberman, “Kitsch as Kitsch Can”, Village Voice, 29 May 2001, p. 119.
  18. Young, p. 37.
  19. Young, p. 37.
  20. Andrew Sarris, “A World War Interrupts a Young Girl’s Fairy Tale”, New York Observer, 4 June 2001, p. 19.
  21. Lucia, p. 30.
  22. Mira Stout, “Raising ‘Orlando,’” Vogue, vol. 183 no. 7, July 1993, p. 138.
  23. Ehrenstein, p. 7.
  24. Stout, p. 138.
  25. Desson Thomson, “For Rhyme and Reason, Just Say ‘Yes’”, Washington Post, 29 July 2005, accessed 24 May 2006.
  26. Lucia, p. 24.
  27. A.O. Scott, “Adulterous Romance in a Fractious World”, New York Times, 24 June 2005, accessed 23 May 2006.
  28. Foundas, p. 61.
  29. Allison Benedikt, “Movie Review: ‘Yes’”, Chicago Tribune, accessed 24 May 2006.
  30. Kenneth Turan, “Lush ‘Orlando’ Makes Its Point Once Too Often”, Los Angeles Times, 25 June 1993, p. F8.
  31. Anthony Lane, “Bewildered” review of Yes, The New Yorker, 27 June 2005, p. 105.
  32. Elena del Rio, “Rethinking Feminist Film Theory: Counter-Narcissistic Performance in Sally Potter’s Thriller”, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, vol. 21 no. 1, 2004, pp. 11–24: 32.
  33. Catherine Fowler, “Cinefeminism in Its Middle Ages, or ‘Please, Please, Please Give Me Back My Pleasure’: The 1990s Work of Sally Potter, Chantal Akerman, and Yvonne Rainer”, Women Filmmakers: Refocusing, University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver, 2002, pp. 51–61: 59.
  34. Columpar, p. 113.
  35. Columpar, 115.
  36. Sally Potter, Yes: Screenplay and Notes, Intro. John Berger and Pankaj Mishra, Newmarket Press, New York, 2005: 66-67.
  37. Lucia, p. 25.
  38. Potter, p. 30.
  39. Potter, p. 30.
  40. In a brochure for the film program “The Vision That Changed Cinema: Michelangelo Antonioni,” the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Rose Cinema recently described Antonioni’s cinema as follows: “Never content to work on a small canvas, Antonioni explored weighty issues and set his characters amidst stark and unfeeling landscapes, yet central to all his work is a need to see, to understand, and to interpret the world around him” (Program Calendar, June 2006).
  41. Jesse Kalin, The Films of Ingmar Bergman, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003, p. 20.
  42. Kalin, 22.
  43. Kalin, 25.
  44. Andrew O’Hehir, “Tweed Skirts, White Walls, Hot Sex, and Shakespeare’s Rhyme / It’s dazzling, yes – but dies before its time”, Salon, accessed 27 May 2006.
  45. Lucia, p. 26.
  46. Potter, p. 73.

Sally Potter (right)


Thriller (1979) also writer

The Gold Diggers (1983) also writer

The London Story (1987) also writer

Tears, Laughter, Fears, and Rage (1986) episodes “Tears” and “Rage” of this television documentary series

Women Filmmakers in Russia/I Am an Ox, I Am a Horse, I Am a Man, I Am a Woman (1988)

Orlando (1992) also writer, composer

The Tango Lesson (1997) also writer, composer

The Man Who Cried (2000) also writer

Yes (2004) also writer, composer

Rage (2009) also writer, composer

Ginger & Rosa (2012) also writer

The Party (2017) also writer

Select Bibliography

Valentina Agostinis, “An Interview with Sally Potter”, Framework, no. 14, 1981, p. 47.

Eileen Barrett, “Response: Decamping Sally Potter’s Orlando” in Eileen Barrett and Patricia Cramer (eds), Re: Reading, Re: Writing, Re: Teaching Virginia Woolf, Pace University Press, New York, 1995, pp. 197–99.

Saskia Barron, “Celeste and Ruby Go Digging”, Stills, no. 12, 1984, pp. 31–33.

Eileen Clarke, “The Tango Lesson”, Entertainment Weekly, 12 June 1998, p. 84.

Anne Ciecko, “Sally Potter: The Making of a British Woman Filmmaker” in Yvonne Tasker (ed.), Fifty Contemporary Filmmakers, Routledge, London, 2002, pp. 272–280.

Anne Ciecko, “Transgender, Transgenre, and the Transnational: Sally Potter’s Orlando”, Velvet Light Trap, no. 41, 1998, pp. 19–34.

Pam Cook, “The Gold Diggers”, Framework, no. 24, 1984, pp. 12–30.

Corinn Columpar, “The Dancing Body: Sally Potter as Feminist Auteure” in Jacqueline Levitin, Judith Plessis, and Valerie Raoul (eds), Women Filmmakers: Refocusing, University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver, 2002, pp. 108–116.

June Cummins, “What Are They Really Afraid Of?: Repression, Anxiety, and Lesbian Subtext in the Cultural Reception of Sally Potter’s Orland” in Laura Davis and Jeannette McVicker (eds), Virginia Woolf and Her Influences, Pace University Press, New York, 1998, pp. 20–26.

Manohla Dargis, “Sally Potter: A Director Not Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, Interview, 23, 1993, pp. 42–43.

Christina Degli-Esposti, “Sally Potter’s Orlando and the Neo-Baroque Scopic Regime”, Cinema Journal, vol. 36 no. 1, 1996, pp. 75–93.

Elena del Rio, “Rethinking Feminist Film Theory: Counter-Narcissistic Performance in Sally Potter’s Thriller”, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, vol. 21 no. 1, 2004, pp. 11–24.

Walter Donohue, “Against Crawling Realism: Sally Potter on Orlando”, Women and Film: A Sight and Sound Reader, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1993, pp. 216–225.

Pat Dowell, “Demystifying Traditional Notions of Gender: An Interview with Sally Potter”, Cineaste, vol. 20 no. 1, 1993, pp. 16–17.

David Ehrenstein, “Out of the Wilderness: An Interview with Sally Potter”, Film Quarterly, vol. 47 no. 1, 1993, pp. 2–7.

Lucy Fischer, “’Dancing through the Minefield’: Passion, Pedagogy, Politics, and Production in The Tango Lesson”, Cinema Journal, vol. 43 no. 3, 2004, pp. 42–58.

Penny Florence, “A Conversation with Sally Potter”, Screen, vol. 34 no. 3, 1993, pp. 275–284.

Catherine Fowler, “Cinefeminism in Its Middle Ages, or ‘Please, Please, Please Give Me Back My Pleasure’: The 1990s Work of Sally Potter, Chantal Akerman, and Yvonne Rainer”, Women Filmmakers: Refocusing, University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver, 2002, pp. 51–61.

Roberta Garrett, “Costume Drama and Counter Memory: Sally Potter’s Orlando” in Steven Earnshaw (ed.), Postmodern Subjects/Postmodern Texts, Rodopi, Amsterdam, 1995, pp. 89–99.

Verina Glaessner, “Fire and Ice”, Sight and Sound, 1992, pp. 13–15.

Raymond Gerard, “Shall She Dance?”, The Village Voice, 18 November 1997, p. 82.

J. Hoberman, “Truth of Beauty”, The Village Voice, 18 November 1997, p. 82.

Vivian Huang and Bérénice Reynaud, “Sally Potter: ‘The Gold Diggers’”, Motion Picture, no. 2, 1990, pp. 13–14.

Maggie Humm, “Postmodernism and Orlando”, Feminism and Film, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1997, pp. 142–178.

Aniko Imre, “Twin Pleasures of Feminism: Orlando Meets My Twentieth Century”, Camera Obscura, vol. 18 no. 3, 2003, pp. 176–211.

Gary Indiana, “Spirits Either Sex Assume”, Artforum International, no. 31, 1993, pp. 88–91.

Brian D. Johnson, “Gender Bender: Orlando directed by Sally Potter”, Maclean’s, 19 July 1993, p. 43.

Andrew Johnston, “The Man Who Cried”, US Weekly, 11 June 2001, p. 88.

E. Ann Kaplan, “Night at the Opera: Investigating the Heroine in Sally Potter’s Thriller”, Millennium Film Journal, nos 10/11, 1981, pp. 115–22.

Harlan Kennedy, “Venice”, Film Comment, 1 November 1997, pp. 48–50.

Anthony Lane, “Bewildered” review of Yes, The New Yorker, 27 June 2005, p. 105.

Jennine Lanouette, “Potter’s Yield”, Premiere, no. 6, 1993, pp. 80–81.

Catherine Lord, “Becoming Still, Still Moving: Theoretical Pleasure in Sally Potter’s Orlando”, Discern(e)ments: Deleuzian Aesthetics/Esthétiques deleuziennes, Rodopi, Amsterdam, 2004, pp. 171–185.

Cynthia Lucia, “Saying ‘Yes’ to Taking Risks: An Interview with Sally Potter”, Cineaste, vol. 30 no. 4, 2005, pp. 24–31.

Scott MacDonald, “Interview with Sally Potter”, Camera Obscura: A Journal of Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies, no. 35, 1995, pp. 187–220.

Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1998, pp. 397–427.

Michael Meyer, “New Faces for the New Year”, Newsweek, no. 123, 1994, pp. 60–63.

Stephen Mooallem, “Sally Potter”, Interview, 1 July 2005, p. 24.

Robin Morgan, “Who’s Afraid of Sally Potter? Orlando written and directed by Sally Potter”, Ms., 1 July 1993, p. 78.

Julianne Pidduck, “Travels with Sally Potter’s Orlando: Gender, Narrative, Movement”, Screen, vol. 38 no. 2, 1997, pp. 172–189.

Sally Potter, The Man Who Cried, Faber and Faber, London, 2000.

Sally Potter, “On Tour with ‘Orlando’”, Projections, no. 3, 1994, pp. 196–212.

Sally Potter, “Sally Potter on ‘Thriller’”, Camera Obscurai, no. 5, 1980, pp. 98–9.

Sally Potter, The Tango Lesson, Faber and Faber, London, 1997.

Sally Potter, Yes: Screenplay and Notes, Intro. John Berger and Pankaj Mishra, Newmarket Press, New York, 2005.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, “The Gold Diggers: A Preview”, Camera Obscura: A Journal of Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies, no. 12, 1984, pp. 126–129.

Leah Rosen, “The Man Who Cried”, People Weekly, 11 June 2001, p. 35.

G. Swanson and L. Moy-Thomas, “An Interview with Sally Potter”, Undercut, no. 1, 1981, pp. 41–4.

Amy Taubin, “About Time”, The Village Voice, 22 June 1993, p. 62.

Peter Travers, “Introducing ‘Orlando’ Director Sally Potter”, Rolling Stone, 24 June 1993, p. 90.

Peter Travers, “The Smart Choice: Orlando directed by Sally Potter and starring Tilda Swinton”, Rolling Stone, 24 June 1993, p. 89.

Dennis West and Joan M. West, “Achieving a State of Limitlessness: An Interview with Tilda Swinton”, Cineaste, vol. 20 no. 1, 1993, pp. 18–21.

Deborah Young, “The Man Who Cried”, Variety, 18 September 2000, pp. 37–38.

Articles in Senses of Cinema

Crocodile Tears: Sally Potter’s The Man Who Cried by Rose Capp

Yes DVD review by Richard Armstrong

Web Resources

Sally Potter Films

Notes on the Adaptation of the Book Orlando by Sally Potter

Yes: A Film by Sally Potter
Official site for Yes, which includes Potter’s blog and discussion board (she regularly responds to questions/comments)

Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Links to online articles can be found here.

Screenonline: Sally Potter (1949-)
British Film Institute’s biography and description of films, written by Annette Kuhn

Seven Questions with Sally Potter of The Tango Lesson
The Director’s Chair Interviews, by Augusta Palmer

The Tango Lesson
Sally Potter’s Inspiration

Click here to buy Sally Potter DVDs and videos at Facets

Click here to search for Sally Potter DVDs, videos and books at

About The Author

Kristi McKim is Professor and Chair of English and Program Coordinator of Film and Media Studies at Hendrix College, where she was awarded the Charles S. and Lucile Esmon Shivley Odyssey Professorship, honoured as the 2014-15 United Methodist Exemplary Professor, and nominated for the CASE U.S. Professors of the Year Award. Her publications include the books Love in the Time of Cinema (2011) and Cinema as Weather: Stylistic Screens and Atmospheric Change (2013), in addition to pieces in Camera Obscura, Studies in French Cinema, Senses of Cinema, Film International and Film-Philosophy. Continually sensitive to how moving images transform our perception of change, her recent work explores film as a natural history.

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