Lovers Of The Arctic Circle (Los amantes del Círculo Polar)

Spain (1998) Dir. Julio Medem

Before enjoying international success with the sizzling Sex And Lucia Spanish arthouse favourite Julio Medem offered us this beguiling elliptical tale of two fated lovers, based loosely on Medem’s own experience of unrequited teenage affections.

In truth, love isn’t the central theme here, rather the idea and romanticism of being in love is the driving force behind this unusual relationship. Told over three stages of their lives, it revolves around Otto and Ana, whose union seems fated due to both having a palindrome name. Similarly Medem ponders on the power of coincidence and the role it may or may not play in their lives.

Their first meeting came while as pre-teens when Otto (Peru Medem), whose parents have just split up, bumps into Ana (Sara Valiente) who had run away from her mother after learning her father had died. They both become smitten with each other but remain strangers. A stunt by Otto involving paper planes with a romantic message leads to a serendipitous meeting between Ana’s mother Olga (Maru Valdivielso) and Otto’s father Álvaro (Nancho Novo), and a few years later the parents marry.

With teenage Otto (Víctor Hugo Oliveira) living with his mother, his relationship with Ana (Kristel Díaz) becomes a strain on their rampant hormones so Otto moves in with the others. As they grow older their affair becomes the worst kept secret in the family while their parents eventually split. Now adults and things become rocky between Otto (Fele Martínez), who disappears after his mother dies, later becoming a pilot, and Ana (Najwa Nimri), who moves to the Arctic Circle and later Finland after another broken relationship with a teacher.

It may seem like I have given most of the plot away but the reality is the above summary barely scratches the surface of the complex web of situations that unfold in this sprawling drama. The story itself is relatively straightforward and, outside of the unusual circumstances in which Otto and Ana come together, this is standard melodrama material.

But it is the morally ambiguous situations which sets this apart from other such fare along with Medem’s non-linear narrative – an often infuriatingly obfuscating yet purposely efficacious tool that teases us mercilessly before bringing the pieces together in a manner that forces us to question our earlier judgements. This may not sound like a rewarding experience – especially the ambiguous double ending – but when it all falls into place we don’t mind so much that we’ve been played.

The biggest conceit of the disparate factors which run through each thread is the one concerning Otto’s name. He is spun a yarn that his grandfather helped a stranded German paratrooper – named Otto, natch – and the amicable way in which they conducted themselves resulted in the future grandson’s name. But it doesn’t end there as Ana’s family history is equally convoluted and – you guessed it – there is some overlap between the two!

Admittedly this feels like a contrivance until we remember that Medem is exploring coincidences and how they can crop up close to or far from home. In this instance it is both but they are worked in to the story with an air of confidence and deftness that we find ourselves fascinated by their eventual effect on the outcome. Medem’s studious attention to these details are to be applauded in lieu of the time skips, sometimes going back and forth without warning, shared through the viewpoint of either Ana or Otto.

Surprisingly, the question of whether the step-siblings should fight their romantic urges post marriage of their parents is barely explored, aside from the odd sign of disapproval from the parents in the later years. This may have been a deliberate choice by Medem, with so many other plot points to cover, but since the pair believe that fate was one their side when they met, we may assume that such a fanciful covers at least one point of view satisfactorily.

Whatever Medem’s motivations and intentions were he shows no desire to preach or moralise on the questionable situations he presents to us, as a good filmmaker should. The developments occasionally are sprinkled with a touch of subversive fantasy and some tongue-in-cheek twists – a particular predicament for Otto in the third act provides some much needed levity – but the ultimate judgement is left to the viewer.  

Medem incorporates inventive production techniques and creative shots as part of his presentation. The scene in which Otto sends a flurry of paper planes across to Ana’s school is beautifully captured and shot from a myriad of angles create a series of mini-scenarios for the fate of each plane. Also of note is a key sequence which bookends the film, a whirlpool of point of view madness and that is all I shall say about that.

Casting as ever is a crucial component in a film’s success and the choices for three incarnations of Ana were inspired. Sara Valiente is both adorably feisty and precocious as young Ana, and the facial match up with Kristel Díaz as teen Ana is remarkably convincing, while Díaz brings the requisite teenage defiance to the character. However it is Najwa Nimri, who traces Ana’s life from young adult to present day, that captivates the most with her luminous eyes and emotionally depth.

Otto isn’t so lucky with Medem’s own son making for a suitably bewitched and nervy youngster, before wooden Daniel Brul look-a-like Víctor Hugo Oliveira takes over. Adult Otto Fele Martínez seems too young for the role, looking more like a lusty teen in pursuing Ana again. But he is believable in the comedy scenes. Thankfully the remainder of the cast pick up the slack.

This is probably an odd way to conclude this review but Lovers Of The Arctic Circle is a film in which one should approach with limited prior knowledge for maximum enjoyment and appreciation for it. Perhaps then what I have written here may make sense!


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