Published April 1, 1999
Lovers of the Arctic Circle is a handsomely constructed fable of love and destiny, written and directed by Julio Medem. Those with a taste for magic realism or the sunny po-mo fables of Jaco Van Dormael (Toto the Hero, The Eighth Day) may well enjoy it, though to my taste its weird Spanish romanticism and gorgeous artificiality are cinematic oat bran at best. The movie is the post-modern version of the saga of star-crossed love, just as Raiders of the Lost Arc is the post modern version of the action thriller or L.A. Confidential the post-modern version of cinéma noir. If this recommends it to you, you are welcome to it.
The story presents us with the heroic-tragic-perverted love of two step-siblings, Otto and Ana (Fele Martinez and Najwa Nimri as adults, Victor Hugo Oliveira and Kristel Díaz as teenagers). When they are still children, Otto’s divorced father, Alvaro (Nancho Novo) marries Ana’s widowed mother, Olga (Maru Valdivielso), an event which seems to them the first of many fateful coincidences, since they have already taken an interest in each other. Various signs taken by Ana as portents (among them the fact that both have got palindromic names), suggest to her that “my father had gone to live in a boy my age”—namely Otto—and that, though “Otto spoke on the outside, my father spoke on the inside.”
For both better and worse, Medem has not the slightest interest in what would be, in real life, the baroque psychic tangle of a grief-stricken girl who fantasizes that her dead father’s spirit inhabits the body of her step-brother and later, as a teenager, begins an affair with him under her mother and step-father’s noses. Otto on his side is equally screwed up, to use the clinical term. As persuaded as Ana that their love is somehow fated, he leaves his mother’s house to go live with his father and stepmother in order the better to meet secretly with Ana while the grownups are sleeping. His mother, left alone, commits suicide, and he is hideously racked with guilt. After a suicide attempt of his own, he decides that he must leave home. “Having left Ana, I’d lost my destiny, so I had to make one up.”
For reasons too complicated to explain but having to do with the legend of Otto’s namesake, a German pilot shot down during the Spanish Civil War and rescued by his grandfather, Otto’s invented destiny is to become a pilot (Otto le piloto in Spanish) in remote Finland, above the Arctic Circle. Both lovers continue to believe that their destinies are linked, however, and so the Arctic Circle is also figured in. Whether because of Otto’s undying guilt or, more likely, just because it makes for a better story (that’s the post-modernism kicking in), Otto doesn’t do the obvious thing and look Ana up to see if they still click the next time he comes home on leave to Spain. Instead, like the children of the stars they fancy themselves as being, they rely on fate and coincidence to bring them together again under the midnight sun.
Just in case my summary has made this movie sound so enticing that you cannot resist going to see it for yourselves, I will not reveal whether or not the lovers are reunited by the picturesque Finnish lake where Ana waits hopefully for “the coincidence of my life” in a cabin owned, amazingly enough, by the first Otto le piloto, the German one. Even more amazingly, she discovers that the older Otto is her step-grandfather. It’s all too much for Otto II, who reckons that destiny requires him to bail out of his plane just like Otto I, even though it is a perfectly good aircraft whose loss is likely to make his employers rather cross.
They, like us, must suspend their disbelief—as critics used to say back in the days when there was a lot less disbelief to suspend—in order to experience the thrill of watching destiny work itself out. Perhaps they will not find, as I do, that destiny reduced to such a congeries of cinematic artifice has lost its power to impress.