Critical Thinking

Watching: “The House of Yes” (1997)

After it sat on our shelf for almost two months, with Netflix probably wondering if we even still knew we had it,  “The House of Yes” turned out to be a film that is full of surprises. This grim drama – the DVD sleeve billed the movie as a dark comedy, but there was very little to laugh at – centers on a volatile incestuous relationship between a twin brother and his mentally unstable twin sister, elder siblings in a twisted, blue-blood Washington DC family. The relative normalcy is thrown into upheaval when the twin brother comes home from New York on Thanksgiving with a fiancée, who is a waitress at a donut shop. Their mother presides loosely over the scene with an overly distanced calm, the unstable sister freaks out snidely, their younger brother decides to seduce the unaware fiancée, and the poor ultra-normal fiancée is enduring it all, just trying to be polite and make a good impression.

Based on a stage play, “The House of Yes” is a heavily verbal affair, with the plot basing itself heavily on the characters’ conversation, nuanced as they may be. The dense dialogue lets the cat out of the bag in snippets, allowing the viewer to go along, saying to himself, Oh no . . . not that . . . But what the viewer gets is: yes, that.

Although the idea of incest is disgusting to its very core, especially when one considers it in the context of two twins – at one point the characters call it “like fucking a mirror” – the core of the story in the “House of Yes” is built around it. If a viewer were to be unconscionably offended by the very idea that a mortal sin drives the film, he or she wouldn’t keep this one playing for more than a few minutes. The question for the viewer is: can you accept it as a fact of this story and still involve yourself in this story? If the answer is yes, then here we go . . . But if the answer is no, then the button on the DVD player with the square symbol, the one that stops the film, would be the one to push.

Having been a long-time fan non-canonical literature, especially of the Beats, I have become accustomed to engaging works that are built around portrayals of objectional behavior and unseemly lifestyles. The questions that arise, for me, are ones about the complexities of human life, even on the fringes, even on levels that are unimaginable to most of us, and the versatile and diverse manifestations that life and relationships can take. That approach is the only thing that kept me grounded during “The House of Yes,” since I was watching a film about a man who is trying to pull away from his unhealthy sexual attachment to his twin sister by entering into a conventional marriage, albeit with a thoroughly unsuitable mate, but who ultimately fails and loses the fiancée after being caught re-enacting an old fling with his twin, who is dressed as Jackie Kennedy during the tryst.

I noticed “The House of Yes” on Netflix because I really like Parker Posey; she’s one of my favorite actresses, and this performance was no different in its boundary-pushing brilliance. I feel really weird about claiming that a movie that centers on incest was “good” . . . but it was. The film has merit and quality, with sharp dialogue, an intellectually challenging premise and solid acting. “The House of Yes” is twisted and sharp and ugly and deep.

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