Obsessed by destiny

For the second week in a row, Dallas is being treated to a dazzling new Spanish import. Last week it was Alejandro Almenabar's Open Your Eyes; this week it's Julio Medem's Lovers of the Arctic Circle--arguably an even more intriguing work. The two stars of Medem's film, Najwa Nimri and Fele Martinez, were supporting players in the Almenabar movie, but the similarities go beyond that. Both directors are interested in the ambiguities of narration; both play tricks with cinematic point of view that shake our sense of reality.

Lovers of the Arctic Circle opens with an even more stylized, less realistic sequence than Open Your Eyes: An all-white screen is revealed to be a snowstorm, through which we eventually spot a crashed airplane. Medem cuts to a newspaper photo of the same image, then to a young man chasing a woman, and then to his reflection in the irises of her eyes. The rest of the film is a gradual expansion and explication of these images; only at the end do we fully understand their context. Well, not fully.

Most of the rest of the film shuttles back and forth between the narrating points of view of the main characters--Otto (Martinez), a courier pilot, and Ana (Nimri), the elementary school teacher he loves.

Flashing back and forth through time, Medem presents the couple's history as a jigsaw puzzle. We learn how they met as children (played by Sara Valiente and Peru Medem), how they became lovers as teenagers (Kristel Diaz and Victor Hugo Oliveira), and how, as young adults, they are parted. By then, we are about halfway through the film. Much of the rest of the action is a tease. Otto and Ana both obviously yearn for each other but, even as their paths cross, they always seem to just miss connecting, until the very end--the very ambiguous end.

Like most plot synopses, the bare bones don't adequately convey the film's magic. Medem's accomplishment is in the telling. Repeated images, themes, and even words are studded throughout the movie in ways both clever and evocative.

For instance, airplanes figure from the very start, from the crashed plane in the first shot to the paper airplane upon which a crucial plot development turns to the reflection of Otto's plane between Ana's legs as she bathes in a lake. An image from a schoolbook is replicated in real life; a character from a dream shows up a second time in reality; passing metaphors are recapitulated as literal events. These connections are not simply for the audience's benefit: The characters perceive them and recognize them as having quasi-mystical significance. They are literary and cinematic tropes that take on concrete plot functions--the word made flesh.

Surprisingly, the word play survives the often-perilous necessity of translation. When we hear a story about another pilot named Otto, Ana quips, "Otto el piloto." Note (as the characters do early on) that both "Otto" and "Ana" are palindromes. "A palindromic name gives you good luck," Ana tells us in voice-over, "and it did turn my life around." This sort of playfulness may seem trivial or arch, but in fact it's perfectly unified with the movie's themes.

This is Medem's fourth film; the first three--including his debut Cows (Vacas), a very different but nearly as arresting multigenerational family saga in which large passages of time are presented from the point of view of, well, cows--have shown up in the U.S. only in one-shot festival screenings. Medem's sure manipulation of all the visual and aural resources of film suggests comparison to David Lynch--most notably his Lost Highway (1997)--but they are also very different. A more telling comparison would be Vincent Ward's Map of the Human Heart (1993), with which Lovers shares a thematic obsession with destiny, as well as much of its central plot.

But a much more evocative, though more obscure, comparison would be Belgian director Jaco van Dormael's Toto the Hero (1991), which similarly presented a lifetime out of order, filtered through unreliable memories and dreams, with an intricate interweaving of themes and motifs. It's almost as though Medem, inspired by both Ward and van Dormael, decided to retell Ward's story through van Dormael's technique. The central difference is one of tone: Regardless of how you read either film's ending, Toto's basic view is comic; Lovers, for all its cleverness and word play, is far more grave. In general, the comic worldview trumps the serious nine times out of 10. But Lovers of the Arctic Circle is that other one out of 10; it earns its gravity.

Lovers of the Arctic Circle.
Written and directed by Julio Medem. Starring Najwa Nimri and Fele Martinez. Opens Friday.


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