'Love Me Not': Film Review

Courtesy of Reel Suspects
Political satire in the sand.

The Catalan former producer of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Manoel de Oliveira delivers his second feature, a surreal spin on the Salome story set during the war in Iraq.

Teeming with more big ideas in its short running time than some directors manage in their careers, maverick filmmaker Lluis Minarro’s Love Me Not manages, by virtue of being structured by the biblical story of Salome, to end up being not only challenging, but elegantly compact, too. Bravely stepping into the shoes of Salome adaptations from the high-art likes of Richard Strauss, Lindsay Kemp and, of course, Oscar Wilde, Love Me Not is dark but playful, and above all clear-eyed in its view of the perversions of war. Its festival run started at Rotterdam and now continues at Spain’s Lleida Latin-American Film Festival, with further bookings likely.

It is 2006, and we are in an unspecified Middle East location that’s probably Iraq (though the pic was shot in Mexico). In a film that slips disconcertingly in and out of fantasy sequences, we first see soldier Salome (Ingrid Garcia-Jonsson, sporting a deliberately androgynous look) having her back soaped in the shower by the brooding, mysterious Yokanaan, a.k.a. The Prophet (Oliver Laxe, whose Fire Will Come recently took the Certain Regard Jury Prize in Cannes). Yokanaan may be a prophet, but more to the point he’s being imprisoned as a terrorist at the desert detention center where Salome lives with her unreconstructed machista stepfather Antipas (Francesc Orella), who’s locked into an aggressive relationship with Salome’s mother Herodias (Lola Duenas), and indeed with everyone else, as well.

Much of the first act of Love Me Not is driven by dialogue between Yokanaan’s guards, Hiroshima (Luis Alberti) and Nagasaki (Fausto Alzati), which veer between the violent and the homoerotic and loosely represent the hawk and dove attitudes to the war. Hiroshima’s view is unnuanced — Yokanaan and his kind are the enemy — but Nagasaki, much to Hiroshima’s disgust, has started to adopt a more sympathetic, relativistic view of their charge. "This war needs blood," Hiroshima believes, but in a world where the PR of war is as important as the war itself, Antipas is under instructions that no harm must come to Yokanaan.

Wearing a red jump suit that’s a stark reminder of Abu Ghraib, the otherworldly Yokanaan is being held in an underground cave from which he issues incantations and prophecies in a variety of languages. Salome becomes fascinated with him and, despite the risks involved, has him brought out of his prison. Her attempts to seduce him fail, and the fate that befalls him follow the original Salome story to the bloody letter.

Love Me Not is not the kind of script that feels obliged to determine why its characters are the way they are, or why they do what they do. The working-through of ideas is what matters, and there are plenty of them. This is an erotic work that asks questions about what bodies are really for, about how what we think of as our spontaneous desires are in fact heavily manipulated by circumstance, and about how war is a transgression of the natural order — one that engenders the greatest transgression of all, people who are unable to love one another (hence the title).

Performances are good from a strong cast, with Garcia-Jonsson standing out in a role that feels stranded somewhere between the realistic and the symbolic. All kudos to her for almost managing to make it plausible that her character asks to have someone’s head presented to her on a silver platter. But other roles feel like little more than vehicles for all those ideas, making some sequences register as stagy. That said, there’s plenty of dark, surreal humor, much of it in the spiteful parody of a marriage that is the relationship between Antipas and Herodias.

Santiago Racaj has become the go-to cinematographer for non-mainstream Spanish film (he shot Carla Simon’s acclaimed Summer 1993) and he is crucial to Love Me Not — whether through the sweeping drone shots, beautifully rendered sex scenes that explore with sensitivity the soft geometry of body parts, the grim shadows of Yokanaan’s cave or the cheesy Mexican nightclub of the film’s final scene.

Production company: Eddie Saeta
Cast: Ingrid Garcia-Jonsson, Francesc Orella, Lola Duenas, Luis Alberti, Fausto Alzati, Oliver Laxe
Director: Lluis Minarro
Screenwriters: Lluis Minarro, Sergi Belbel
Producers: Julio Chavez Montes
Executive producers: Ingrid Fernandez de Castro, Monica Moreno
Director of photography: Santiago Racaj
Production designer: Claudio Ramirez Castelli
Costume designer: Brenda Gomez
Editors: Nuria Esquerra, Gemma Cabello
Composer: Esteban Aldrete
Casting director: Lucia Uribe
Sales: Eddie Saeta

82 minutes