Lovers of the Arctic Circle

I'm lost in your eyes
Julio Medem
Najwa Nimri, Fele Martínez, Nancho Novo, Maru Valdivielso
The Setup: 
Man and woman are destined to be together.

This was, for a few years, what I would answer when I was asked what my favorite movie was. When it came out it was one of those movies that no one could really describe, but they all liked it, which always interests me. So I got myself into a highly enhanced viewing state and found myself totally swept away. I took a friend of mine to it a few days later, and he liked it too. And that’s the last I had seen it until now, when my indefensible enjoyment of things like The Lake House and Wicker Park and The Butterfly Effect 2 made me think it’s time to evaluate it again.

It is no longer my favorite movie [though I don’t know what I could say is], but still definitely enjoyable and hypnotic. We open with images of a plane crash in an icy landscape. There is a bouncy song in Spanish—which I REALLY wished they would have translated, as it’s obviously important—and the credits. Then a chapter title: Otto.

Otto is an eight-year-old who gets picked up from school and told that his father is leaving his mother. In here we have the first of many repeating motifs, this one the red bus that they almost crash into. Then one day soon after that he runs after a soccer ball that rolls down and into the woods, and suddenly finds himself running after this girl. She falls, turns and stares at him. Later, he and his father have a discussion of whether love lasts forever—Otto thinks it does. He writes a question about love [we never find out what it is] on a bunch of sheets of paper, makes paper airplanes out of them, and flies them out the window all over the school grounds. After school everyone is talking about them. The girl Otto was looking at finds one and gives it to her mother, telling her that Otto’s father wrote it. The next day Otto waits out in the rain for the girl, but she doesn’t come. When he finally gives up and goes to get in his father’s car, there she is. Then a chapter title: Ana.

We now see the events we’ve just witnessed, but from Ana’s perspective. Her mother has shown up after school and told her that her father was dead; that’s why she was running. When she saw Otto and stared at him, she was thinking that he was a gift from her dead father, then begins to think that he IS her dead father. They feel very close, but rarely speak. Ana has the impression she is communicating with him psychically. By now it’s apparent that their parents have gotten together, and they are effectively siblings, though not related. Then comes a transition that totally blew my mind when I first saw the movie: the mother almost hits the red bus, and both Ana and Otto are flung forward in their seats. When they spring back, they are ten years older.

The movie continues with the structure of showing Otto’s perspective, and then the same events from Ana’s. You will also note that each of their names are palindromes, they are the same backwards or forwards, which they make a great deal of. They grow closer and finally start kissing and sleeping together.

Soon after Otto abruptly leaves his mother’s house and moves in with Ana and her family. Then his mother kills herself—no word on why, but one could be forgiven for thinking her son suddenly abandoning her might have had something to do with it. Otto freaks out and tells his father it would have been better if it was him. Then he tries to kill himself by sledding off a cliff. He lives, but has a vision of Ana rescuing him. He asks her to be his mother, and she says “That’s impossible.”

Then Otto, feeling guilty over his mother’s death, abandons the family and moves to Finland to become a pilot. After a while Ana goes to look for him there, and ends up becoming a teacher. Four years pass, including a scene in which the two are right next to each other in a town square, but looking in opposite directions, a la L’Appartement / Wicker Park. Blah blah blah eventually they contact each other and make plans to meet at a cabin in the arctic circle.

I’m going to talk about the ending now, so if you plan to see it you might want to skip past the spoiler mark. At one point Otto says that when he left the family he “lost his fate.” He decides to parachute down to meet Ana, sending the plane off to crash up in the icy landscape where we saw it at the beginning. All of this has to do with this whole thing about their grandparents and whatnot. One of the most memorable images of the movie is the reflection of the plane flying up between Ana's legs. He gets caught in a tree, and misses Ana, who goes into town. He gets a ride, and again they almost hit the red bus. The bus rounds the curve and hits Ana, absorbed in a newspaper, reading about the plane crash that she assumes Otto died on. She has a vision that they meet again, and in reality he runs to her and sees himself reflected in her eyes. The end.

Surprisingly, the ending works. Contrast this with the endings of The Lake House or Wicker Park [both remakes of foreign films], that rearrange their stories so that their lovers can meet at the end and live happily ever after. In either of those, I don’t begrudge this decision, as they are successfully sappy movies that build toward that reconciliation for the whole film, and after all that anticipation, I see nothing wrong with giving audiences what they want. Here the mood is melancholy and pensive throughout, so one doesn’t have such an expectation of a happy ending, and there’s something poignant in the way this film posits that they yearn for each other so much, they can only really be together in a vision. There is the line about how Otto “lost his fate” when he abandoned the family, and I suppose this has much to do with it as well, although it’s not entirely clear to me. He is a narcissistic little shit, and if he didn’t have to do that stupid stunt about parachuting in to see her, it could be argued she’d still be alive to receive him. Nevertheless, there’s something poetic in about their final, tragic missed connection, and it totally works. Oh by the way, at the very end we have a reprise of the Spanish song at the beginning, making us annoyed anew that they don’t bother to translate the lyrics.

I liked it, but a LOT less than when I first saw it. When I saw it before, Otto and Ana struck me as extremely sensitive people who are connected by a secret understanding. Ana remains unscathed, but this time Otto struck me as a real fucking narcissistic prick. He abandons his mother, then is pissed at his father when she kills herself. He abandons his father, stealing money from him, but when he shows up again he makes no apology and acts like the aggrieved one. He is consistently difficult and insulting to Ana’s mother. All of this grows ever more tedious and alienates one from him, but when he pulls the dumb stunt with the parachute, I completely lost sympathy. Luckily I think there is a strain of the movie that recognizes this and hence the consequences he faces, but mostly one is left the impression that the movie supports him and his right to be strange and self-centered.

Nevertheless, I was fast-forwarding by the end. Yeah, yeah, fate, whatever, let’s just get to the point. And I have very little patience for those scenes where characters are right next to each other but looking the other way. How poignant, we can be so close to another person and yet so far away… oh, excuse me, I dozed off for a second there.

This director also did the intriguing though impenetrable Vacas [Cows], which also shares a dreamy vibe—though about 10 times more dreamy—and Sex and Lucia, another dreamy movie in which characters share a spiritual love and spend eons trying to find each other. That one features the devastatingly gorgeous Paz Vega. Put her and Penelope Cruz next to each other and the screen would melt.

Anyway, still a good movie for the romantic in you.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, especially if you like those dreamy hypnotic romances about people fated to be together.