Thursday, 7 January 2010

Lovers of the Arctic Circle, Julio Medem, Spain 1998

“One colour: Blue”

Julio Medem’s exciting fourth feature film is not easy to summarise.

Lovers of the Arctic Circle resists easy genre classification as much as the films by most of his fellow countrymen, such as Carlos Saura, Victor Erice or Luis Bunuel, to name but a few. But although Medem’s film is very much in line with Saura’s preoccupation with the past or Bunuel’s mastery of leading the audience astray with a narrative that almost defies any logic, Medem, who belongs to new -that is to say: post-Franco- generation of Spanish filmmakers, is less consumed with the politics of his country than with the wonders of the human soul and brain, which may be a result of the fact that Julio Medem has a degree in psychiatry. Lovers of the Arctic Circle is first and foremost about memory, although reducing it to that would not do it justice. Love and the coincidences in life and our control over them (or the lack of it) are thrown into the mix until what emerges comes close to a Greek Tragedy. To give a clear account of Medem’s film is a challenge in itself as Lovers of the Arctic Circle is told from two different viewpoints: that of Otto, who meets Ana, his love interest, at the first of the story’s many coincidences, when they both were little kids. What’s more, the film begins with the end, although the viewer doesn’t know that until the actual end of the film when we see the very same images again; images, it can be assumed, that set off Otto’s and Ana’s memories through which the story is told in turns. Thus, the film has come full circle, so to speak, although the circle of the protagonists has been interrupted, or rather, hasn’t quite been closed. “It’s good for life to go in circles. But my life has only gone round once”, we hear Otto say at the beginning of the film. And so the story unfolds. At the time of their first encounter Otto’s father is about to leave his wife only to fall in love with Ana’s mother, whom he meets, accidentally, when picking Otto up from school. After his parents’ break-up Otto stays with his mum, a native German, whereas his father shares his life and home with Ana and her mother. For a while Otto’s meetings with Ana are reduced to the times when they are both fetched from school by either Otto’s father or Ana’s mum. That Otto and Ana both have palindromic names is another reflection on ‘coincidence’ and ‘circle’ on which the story is built. It is during one of those daily pick-ups that Ana asks Otto how he got his outlandish, un-Spanish sounding name and we learn that during the war as the Germans were bombing Guernica, his grandpa saved a German soldier, resulting in both of them sharing a cigarette and striking up an unlikely, albeit very brief, friendship which has its reflection later on in the film. From the first time he lays eyes on her Otto is infatuated with Ana, eventually prompting him to abandon his beloved mum to move in with his father simply because he wants to be closer to Ana. Infatuation turns into love and the two become lovers, unbeknownst to their unsuspecting parents.

So far, so good. However, the story takes a tragic turn when Otto’s mother dies, out of the blue, of what we must interpret was a broken heart, unable to cope with being abandoned by both her husband and her son. Devastated and guilt-ridden by his mother’s sudden death Otto disappears after having stolen a large amount of money from his father. Answering an ad in a newspaper he becomes a pilot on a messenger plane servicing the Lapland area while Ana takes up with one of her former teachers only to leave him to seek refuge in a faraway cottage located on the Arctic Circle, which is where their lives will once again cross. As mentioned above, Lovers of the Arctic Circle is full of -what might or might not be- coincidences, circles and doublings. For instance, paper-planes appear throughout the film, anticipating not only Otto’s future profession but also alluding to Otto’s name-sake, the German soldier, a parachutist, who was saved by Otto’s grandfather while hanging on a tree-branch after a failed leap from a plane. In fact, so carefully crafted is the screenplay that everything, from incident to colour, has its counterpart later on in the film. And were it not for the tightly woven script, which precisely accentuates that artificiality, and the fully fleshed-out characters, the end-result may well have turned out too contrived. However, this artificiality, which seems almost unreal, is underscored by Alberto Iglesias’ sombre soundtrack and by images dipped in blue, ranging from a blue-tinted camera filter to a vast number of objects throughout the film, thus not just hinting at the coldness of the Arctic Circle but also reminding us of the nature of those images, which are Otto’s and Ana’s memories, and memories are by nature unreal. Consequently, when we see the colour red appearing in the film, as it does on three occasions, we are on high alert, suspecting that fate might strike at any moment. Medem’s choice of using blue as the domineering colour is of course hauntingly reminiscent of Kieslowski’s film Three Colours: Blue, which also revolves around love, memory, death and coming to terms with loss and bereavement. Lovers of the Arctic Circle offers no easy way out of this mystic, intrinsic story and sends the viewer off with much to think about and dwell on.As in Kieslowski’s film, where blue stands for freedom and liberty, so Medem might well have chosen that colour for the very same reasons: to no longer be a prisoner of one’s own past, to be free of the memories that haunt us.

And who can tell – but that may well be the reason why he dedicated this film to his father.

Lovers of the Arctic Circle is available on DVD.