Julio Medem is a Spanish writer/director whose second film, the intriguing psycho-thriller The Red Squirrel, so impressed the late Stanley Kubrick that he bought a print of the film for himself. (As of this writing, I have yet to see Medem's first film, Vacas (Cows).) Medem's next film, Tierra was a visually striking though obscure symbolic fable. The talent was certainly there but, for me at least, it didn't bear fruit until The Lovers of the Arctic Circle (Los amantes del Círculo Polar).
The lovers of the title are Ana and Otto, played as adults by Najwa Nimri and Fele Martínez. They first meet at the age of eight, and become closer when Otto's parents divorce and Otto's father Álvaro (Nancho Novo, the distinctively-featured lead of The Red Squirrel) and Ana's mother Olga (Maru Valdivielso) become lovers. Otto leaves his mother to move in with them, and he and Ana are brought up as stepsiblings. Circumstances contrive to part the young lovers, but their destiny lies in Finland, inside the Arctic Circle.
The plot is simple, even novelettish, but what is remarkable about this film is the way Medem tells it, which is harder to describe clearly as it is to watch. Circles and doubles are the main structural principle. The film opens with a series of brief shots which don't fall into place until the very end. The rest of the film is told in a long flashback, alternating between Otto and Ana's points of view. But this pattern is more complex than that: Medem throws in flashbacks (with present-day actors playing their characters' ancestors) and flashforwards. As with the opening sequence, you won't grasp everything at first, but Medem's eye is so strong that it hardly matters: some of those images will stay with you for quite a while. The circle/doubles theme continues: there are two characters called Otto and two called Álvaro, and not for nothing do the two protagonists have palindromic names. Add to that an overt emphasis on the workings of fate and chance – or outrageous coincidences, to the unsympathetic – and two mutually exclusive endings. No doubt these postmodernist narrative games will infuriate some, but what lifts the film above mere clever-cleverness is the conviction of the central love story. Despite their flaws, these are two people you genuinely care for, and you wish and hope for them to be united at the end. Both stimulating and deeply romantic, The Lovers of the Arctic Circle is a film that appeals equally to the head and the heart.
The Lovers of the Arctic Circle was shot in Super 35 with a deliberate cold, hard look (one reason for sentimentality being kept at bay). Tartan's transfer is correctly framed at 2.35:1 and is anamorphic, a first for this label. There are a few artefacts, but nothing very distracting. The dialogue is in Spanish, except for the scenes in Finland where the characters use English as a lingua franca. The subtitles are on the small side and now and again lost against white backgrounds, though as this is a very visual film, I found the occasional missed line of dialogue didn't hurt too much. The soundtrack is Dolby Surround, which is a pity as according to the end credits the film was recorded in Dolby Digital, so why wasn't a 5.1 track used? Either way, the soundtrack isn't in any way elaborate, mostly favouring dialogue, with the surround channels occasionally used for effects such as wind. There are sixteen chapter stops, just about adequate though hardly generous. Although the packaging says "Region 0", this DVD is in fact encoded for Region 2 only.
The extras include the trailer, which is in anamorphic 16:9, and a gallery of ten stills which are so small (circular inside the graphic of an eye) that they're hardly worth the bother. There are biographies of the director and the two lead actors, an interview with Medem by Trevor Johnston and a review of the film by Tom Charity. These are all presented as rolling text with a musical background. Unless you are a very slow reader, you'll probably find that these seem to last forever. Given the need for text on screen in the first place, it would be better to have them as separate pages which the viewer could advance at their own pace. The menu has white text on a pale background, which is not always easy to read and navigate.
The Lovers of the Arctic Circle, as a film, found its way onto my Top Ten for 2000, though apart from the picture the DVD has room for improvement. Even so, for the film itself this disc gets a strong recommendation from me.
Gary Couzens has reviewed the Region 0 release of The Lovers of the Arctic Circle, a visually striking and structurally complex love story from Spanish director Julio Medem. Tartan's DVD has a good anamorphic picture but has room for im