Spanish auteur Julio Medem (“Cows,” “The Red Squirrel”) consolidates his reputation for unsettling cinematic beauty with a philosophical twist in “The Lovers of the Arctic Circle,” an offbeat and intelligent love story that is his most accessible work to date. Ping-pong structure and complexity of its concerns position the movie outside the mainstream, but pic, which opened promisingly Aug. 28 with a platform release, should do OK at home. Though Medem’s last movie , “Earth,” severely dented his international rep, the deft combination of head and heart in “Lovers” could bring helmer back from the offshore cold, with fest runs and arthouse showings looking likely.
Defiantly nonlinear, the plot is told in alternating sections entitled “Otto” and “Ana.” Typically blending theory with practice, most of the real action takes place at the level of ideas — easier to grasp here than in “Earth.” Credits roll over richly textured, mysterious images of a crashed airplane in snow, and rest ofthe movie is an intriguing, leisurely explanation of what these images mean.
Two school kids, feisty Ana (Sara Valiente, reminiscent of Ana Torrente in Victor Erice’s classic “Spirit of the Beehive”) and dreamy Otto (Peru Medem), are united by fate when Ana’s mother, Olga (Maru Valdiviesio), and Otto’s father , Alvaro (Nancho Novo), fall in love — the result of a misguided paper airplane thrown out a school window by Otto.
Alvaro abandons Otto’s German mother, Ula (Beate Jensen), in favor of Olga. Medem is strong on things from a child’s point of view, conveying the kids’ sense of mystery without lapsing into sentimentality. The kids spend a lot of time riding around in back of Alvaro’s car. Otto, wanting to be near Ana, goes to live with Alvaro and Olga, while Ana is under the impression that the soul of her dead father has inhabited the boy’s body and that she is destined to be with him.
The brother-sister relationship between Ana (Najwa Nimri) and Otto (Fele Martinez) alters as they hit adolescence and sleep together one stormy night. The first kiss occurs over a geography book open at a description of the Arctic Circle, and they end up regularly sleeping together, secretly, in the parental home. When Otto visits his mother one day, he finds her dead, and the young man, passive until now, explodes in life-transforming grief: In a sense, her death has been caused by his leaving her for Ana.
Film makes great play with the idea of north-south cycles and parallels, and the structure consolidates this. Most of what happens is repeated sooner or later, through different eyes — memorable sequences include a sled ride toward a mountain precipice and Ana being run down by a car — with pic’s aim being to find the patterns behind life’s apparent coincidences.
Though this may sound pretentious and overly schematic, the themes are welded to a gripping storyline, and characters, likable or not, are never less than interesting. Result is a picture with the emotion that has largely been missing from Medem’s work of late. As Otto and Ana, both Martinez and the wide-eyed, perpetually startled Nimri (from Alejandro Amenabar’s “Thesis” and “Open Your Eyes,” respectively) turn in their best perfs so far as their characters edge forward toward understanding.
Pic retains many of the visual mannerisms of Medem’s earlier pics, but less showily. The beauty of its landscapes — partly shot in Finland — is largely depicted straight, with none of the garish tones of “Earth.” Dialogue is not always lively, but the soul-searching here is better motivated. Tech credits are excellent, with understated music by Alberto Iglesias, editing by Ivan Aledo and Gonzalo Berridi’s lensing all making significant contributions to Medem’s quirky vision.