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The set-up of Maryna Er Gorbach and Mehmet Bahadir Er’s sophomore feature Love Me promises a cross-cultural romantic comedy of the traditional and predictable kind, but ends up by delivering something rather more interesting. Starting out in the vein of an English social comedy, it appears to head for Pretty Woman territory before pitching itself squarely as a serious-minded piece of social drama. With popular audiences likely to be lured by the title and with the movie appealing to both Slavic and Islamic sensibilities, Love Me should do fair business in its home markets and at specialist venues in the English-speaking territories as well as establishing itself on the festival circuit. Cottbus follows a Montreal festival screening, and other venues beckon.
When Cemal (Ushan Cakir), a young Turkish working-class man, is engaged by his family to a woman he has never seen, he feels he has to bow to tradition, which includes being dragged off by his uncle and cousin on a mid-winter visit to Ukraine for his stag night, or rather weekend. At a Kiev disco he is unceremoniously picked up – almost literally – by the glamourous Sacha (Viktoria Spesyvtseva) and taken to her luxury flat with every prospect of a stag night beyond his wildest dreams.
Naturally there’s many a slip and the first of these comes when Sasha’s mother Luba (Olena Stefanska) arrives to announce that her grandmother, who is in the early stages of dementia, has gone walkabout in the subway and that help is urgently needed to find her. Then, when Cemal nobly intervenes to protect a woman who is being beaten up by her husband in the street, he gets carted off to a police station and banged up in the slammer. So far, so comic: an odd couple formed by a bemused, rough-hewn, tongue-tied Turk and a fur-coated, statuesque beauty.
But Sasha has an agenda. Her motivation is that she has been given the brush-off once too often by her lover Alexander (Sergei Puskepalis), a wealthy, married Moscow businessman. Sasha, it gradually becomes apparent, is a kept woman – in effect, a high-class tart. And what she really wants above all is love, true love, the real McCoy, with a baby and all (the mirror tells her she’s not getting any younger). Cemal seems set to become the answer to her prayer and the relationship develops. Ever the gentleman, Cemal fends off a virtual rape attempt by Sasha, and there is a moment of real tenderness between them. Then Alexander unexpectedly returns to Kiev, Cemal’s uncle and cousin show up to remind him that their holiday break is almost over, and a new set of problems arise.
As the film’s focus moves from Cemal to Sasha, the directors achieve what amounts to a genre-shift, and while disbelief is willingly suspended in the context of a standard romcom, audiences may be less inclined to follow as Sasha is confronted with an existential choice between love and money.
Directors Gorbach and Er, like their characters a Turkish-Ukrainian couple, were faced with a similar choice when deciding on the movie’s ending. Gorbach told a Cottbus festival audience that a producer offered to massively increase their budget if they agreed to provide the usual love-conquers-all outcome. To their credit, they turned him down and the classic race-against-time to the airport ends with a challenge to the audience.
Despite this, the movie’s polished surfaces testify to solid production values, and DP Svyatoslav Bulakhovsky’s camera draws memorable pictures of the snowbound city-scapes of the Ukrainian capital. There are serious social issues glinting beneath the surface of this thoughtful entertainment, but they should no handicap to its fortunes at the box-office.
Production company: Tato Film
Cast: Ushan Cakir, Viktoria Spesyvtseva, Olena Stefanska, Margaryta Kosheleva, Sergei Puskepalis
Directors, screenwriters: Maryna Er Gorbach, Mehmet Bahadir Er
Producers: Olena Yershova, Mehmet Bahadir Er
Photography: Svyatoslav Bulakhovsky
Production design: Marketa Kornikova
Editor: Maryna Er Gorbach
Music: Baris Diri
International sales: Patra Spanou Film Marketing (Germany)
No rating, 90 minutes
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