Fire and Ice

Julio Medem's Lovers of the Arctic Circle is arguably an even more intriguing work than the recent truth-and-illusion triller Open Your Eyes, done by his Spanish counterpart Alejandro Amenabar. The two stars of Medem's film, Najwa Nimri and Fele Martinez, were supporting players in the Amenabar movie, but the similarities go beyond that. Both directors are interested in the ambiguities of narration; both play tricks with cinematic points of view that shake our sense of reality, albeit in quite different ways.

Lovers of the Arctic Circle opens with an even more stylized, less realistic sequence than did 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 his reflection in 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: Even at the end there is plenty of room for doubt as to the exact nature of what has transpired.

Most of the rest of the film shuttles between the narrating points of view of the main characters: Otto (Martinez), a courier pilot, and Ana (Nimri), the elementary school teacher he loves. As in Hilary and Jackie, the film has intertitles announcing which character is guiding us.

Flashing back and forth through time, Medem presents the couple's history as something of a jigsaw puzzle. We learn how they first 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 part. By then we are almost exactly halfway through the film. Much of the rest of the action is a tease, in the manner of Sleepless in Seattle or Alan Rudolph's interesting 1987 failure, Made in Heaven. 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/cinematic tropes that take on concrete plot functions, the word made flesh.

Surprisingly, the wordplay 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. It is not giving anything away to point out that the film is itself a palindrome, with the second half in many ways a reverse mirror of the first half.

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, perhaps, would be with 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 with 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 wordplay, is far more grave. In general, the comic worldview trumps the serious nine times out of ten. But Lovers of the Arctic Circle is that other one out of ten; it earns its gravity.

Lovers of the Arctic Circle.
Rated R.
Directed by Julio Medem. With Najwa Nimri, Fele Martinez, Peru Medem and Sara Valiente.

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