Julio Medem’s 2001 film Sex and Lucia is closely akin to its 1998 precursor Lovers of the Artic Circle. The Spanish director has created here two films with similar plots surrounding separated lovers who are seemly connected by forces beyond human perception. The basic notion is that love transcends time and space and forms an inseparable bond which is stronger than any of the commonly perceived physical forces of our earthly existence. But where Sex and Lucia deals with this through an unsubtle, explicit and often provocative way, Lovers of the Artic Circle exercises restraint, love and compassion towards its star crossed protagonists.
The plot follows Otto and Ana, they’re connected by their names which are both palindromes. They meet by chance and fall in love as children, as they do so, Otto’s father and Ana’s mother also begin a relationship, and consequently Otto and Ana end up living together, from here Otto and Ana as teenagers begin a secretive affair, knowing their parents wouldn’t approve of this relationship given the possibility of mistaking them for an incestuous couple, they keep their union hidden. In a depressed state Otto’s mother commits suicide, an act which psychologically tortures her son through unbearable guilt as he left her to live by herself in order for him to be close to Ana. As a result Otto now finds himself with suicidal urges of his own, but instead of killing himself he runs away from home and his love. Ana then searches for Otto and as they’re connected beyond the physical world, Otto also finds himself searching for Ana, this eventually leads them both to a place where the sun never sets, Northern Finland and into the artic circle.
As stated already this is a superior film to its follow-up Sex and Lucia which features a staggering amount of almost pornographic sex scenes – not that this was entirely surprising as the clue is in the title. Without wanting to come across as prudish, the amount of scenes featuring carnal acts was a tad disconcerting, there is nothing wrong with nudity in films, or sex, or even explicit sex just so long as it has a function beyond simple titillation. In this case there were multiple sex scenes between one couple, and where one such scene creates a sense that this is a sexually active and passionate couple, three or four sex scenes (in a row) leave you with a rather bitter taste and a feeling that the director is more interested in gorgeous naked people having intercourse than story or character in which case why not simply make a porn movie and be done with it. That said, most of this was restrained to the first act, and thankfully was less of a dominant force in the second half when the plot took shape, but even more thankfully such overly lustful sequences are absent from Lovers of the Artic Circle.
There is a lot that impresses about this film, firstly its structure which moves back and forth in the timeline and plays out sequences from two perspectives. We see multiple events from both Ana’s and Otto’s points of view, when Medem does switch between them he employs a title card to signal his move. This is a simple but very effective method, effective in that it is not at all confusing. Through this switching perspective we are blessed with a truly even handed film which is dedicated to both of the two central characters equally. Truly there are two protagonists in this film and both given the same amount of attention.
Ana and Otto become a couple by either chance or fate depending on your point of view everything in life follows this pattern, for every event which befalls us can be attributed to chance or fate in equal measure. Here Medem presents a story which takes its cue from fate and makes no bones about it. But instead of doing so through some half baked dialogue about how everything happens for a reason or even attempting to quantify the forces which push individuals in differing directions Medem instead opts to do it through visual poetry by making this borderline supernatural story of chance or fate seem as natural as anything in the world. It is dictated honestly and compassionately and is never sacrine or sentimental in its presentation of what is often considered one of the more romantic notions in fiction – the lovers brought back together by fate. This cliché hasn’t been re-invented so much as re-packaged in a far more mysterious and intangible form. In other words, Medem’s pulled of the rather nifty trick of making his contrivances and coincidences seem like ordinary events and sound possibilities, one scene in particular when the young couple are both longing for one and other, they find themselves in a city square sitting metres away from each other and both completely unaware of their proximity; instead of groaning at how ridiculous the situation is the viewer is instead compelled to buy into this sense of a tragically missed opportunity.
Visually Medem’s films are very similar to Pedro Almodovar, not simply because their both Spanish directors whose work is ordinarily set in Spain and thus shares the same native tongue and similar locations, but because they’re both found of the wide angle. Medem tends to move his around more, and often breaks into hand-held (although not so much in Lovers of the Artic Circle) Here Medem uses a very bleak, de-saturated and very deep blue colour grade which adds to a feeling of coldness in this film which won’t be to everyone’s tastes; along with this distinctive look the performances are also very cold to and rarely burst into enflamed or enraged passion (Otto’s mother’s funeral scene being a notable exception.)
Medem often finches away from brutal violence. The most horrendous scenes of Sex and Lucia and done through implication and Lovers of the Artic Circle is no exception to this, one stand out moment presents a decomposing corpse which is never seen but is unmistakably so as denoted by the sounds of flies buzzing around the rotten flesh. This is Medem’s subtler side which is far more effective than simply showing us our fears he gives us small snippets which create a far rawer sensation.
Unfortunately the film is somewhat let down in its plotting. The first act is a great set-up which gives us a complex non-linear structure and an interesting dynamic between the central characters. The second act concentrates more on the secretive relationship between Otto and Ana, where startlingly real sexual tension builds up, and a very visceral sense of excitement at young love and secretive affairs, there is a tenderness here which is again rarely presented without being ruined by sentiment. This section is arguably the most interesting, as is the sudden break down or the relationship and the beginning of the subsequent search. Where the story loses us is in its resolution, as it gets ever closer it becomes obvious that it can only conclude in limited number of ways and no one option is going to be entirely satisfactory. Struggling to avoid the anti-climax in films such as this can be a difficult task as the script writer encounters what is often refereed to as the “plot monster”. Meaning that the set-up and execution can be excellent but when it arrives at any possible conclusion none of them will do the earlier acts the justice they deserve, and the writer can either pick a conclusion and run with it (as in this case) or they can go back to the beginning of the story and change something fundamental which will possibly irrevocably damage or destroy the excellence of the first two acts. It’s a nasty situation to find oneself in as a writer, and often results in retreat rather than perseverance. That all said the films final act is not poor by any stretch of the imagination and will not detract from the well constructed lyrical story-telling of the first and second. For those who are unfamiliar with Medem’s work or the often excellent Spanish cinema then this little contemporary obscurity is a fine place to start and a restrained and well measured love story – a rarity in modern cinema.