The Lovers of the Arctic Circle

Spain/France 1998

Reviewed by Jonathan Romney


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Madrid, the present. Schoolchildren Otto and Ana become fascinated with each other. After Otto's parents separate, his father Álvaro and Ana's mother Olga become lovers. Later, the adolescent Otto leaves his mother to move in with Ana, Olga and Álvaro. Otto tells Ana he is named after a German pilot encountered by his Basque grandfather after the bombing of the town of Guernica. Although their parents see them as siblings, Otto and Ana become lovers and develop a mutual fascination for Lapland.

Years later, Olga is approached by a man named Álvaro Midelman who recruits her as a television newsreader; she also becomes his lover. After finding his mother dead, Otto becomes angry and self-destructive, and is nearly killed in a sledge accident. He leaves home and takes a job as a pilot flying mail to Finland. Ana takes up teaching and moves in with Javier, Otto's old schoolteacher. When Olga moves to Australia, Ana too feels the need to leave; Midelman tells her she can use his father's cabin in Rovaniemi, Finland, on the Arctic Circle. She writes to Otto, telling him that Álvaro Midelman's father was the German pilot after whom he was named.

Otto flies back to Finland, but bales out of his plane, landing close to the cabin. Hearing news of the plane's crash, Ana returns to Rovaniemi, and is happily reunited with Otto. In another ending, however, Ana is run over and killed just as Otto arrives in town.


Basque director Julio Medem may be cinema's last full-blown symbolist. Not only does he fill his films with recurring images, but he also encourages us to read philosophical significance into them. So The Lovers of the Artic Circle begins with the midnight sun skating across the Finnish horizon, while the hero's voiceover narration ponders the notion of a life ruled by circles.

The flip side of such questionable profundities is the possibility that everything is simply a formal game generated from abstractions (opposites, doubles, mirror images) and the occasional multilingual pun (finish/Finnish; the Spanish word aqui, and the Finnish name Aki). Lovers of the Arctic Circle ostensibly adopts a more realistic mode than Medem's last film Tierra, where the rural setting could well have been another planet. Lovers is a relatively small-scale story of romance and destiny, but its geometrical construction and deployment of outrageous coincidence make it a genuinely alien confection. What looks at first sight like a grand Zhivagoesque tale of fated love and separation keeps devolving into a compendium of polarities and circles. There are two characters named Otto, two named Álvaro, two lovers both acutely aware of having reversible names; the narrative too is built on repetition, doubling, circularity and presumably - although this really issues a challenge to analysis - the palindrome principle.

The story defies easy synopsis, partly because it requires reassembly from Otto's and Ana's alternating chapters, and partly because the lovers are played at different ages by three different sets of actors. To complicate things further, the actors (Fele Martínez and Najwa Nimri) who play the mature lovers appear in the flashback showing the German pilot ("Otto el piloto") meeting his future wife, a sequence which duplicates Otto and Ana's first meeting.

As if this jigsaw principle weren't alienating enough, Medem tests us further by spinning us what purports to be a narrative of grand destiny, while repeatedly exposing its twists as cavalier string-pulling. Without warning, Medem will send his characters' lives in an unforeseen direction by having a man walk in out of nowhere to seduce Olga - a man who happens to share the name of her lover Álvaro. The notion of plausibility is swallowed up in an intricate game, in which every element is there simply to reflect another, and in which every part has to be accounted for before the game can reach a satisfying conclusion.

But would this love story seem any more plausible stripped of Medem's manipulations? Or is he, rather, following the classic strategy of self-reflexive fiction, using the ready-made label destiny to expose those petrified conventions we like to think of as the natural, organic shapes of narrative?

Lovers seems to be even more explictly about narrative than Medem's other films, and so this means Lovers of the Artic Circle invests slightly less in visual artifice. The images themselves, apart from an extravagant snow-bound sequence, are low key by his standards: classrooms, the generally prosaic Finnish landscape, cramped interiors suffused with a distancing and already polar blue chill. Medem here seems less interested in specific images than in the way they interlock. This is an intensely edited film, with emphasis on staggering leaps: a lurching car in a near-miss accident abruptly vaults the narrative several years into the future.

Medem's cinema often depends heavily on the performers' charisma, and his repertory casting has established his work as an autonomous zone in which films refer to each other. Here his customary leads Emma Suárez and Carmelo Gómez are gone, replaced by the slightly pallid duo of Martínez and Nimri (rather more arresting are the eerily blank-eyed pair who play their childhood selves).

The only familiar face is the saturnine Nancho Novo, here playing a rapidly ageing patriarch, as if to suggest that Medem's cinema is pulling up roots, moving on. Medem's Basque imagery - already going underground in Tierra - also continues to recede. The scene has shifted to Madrid (Otto and Ana have a beautifully choreographed non-encounter in the Plaza Mayor), while the only explicitly Basque factor is the reference to Guernica, which allows for a multiple flourish of taboo-busting: not-quite siblings Ana and Otto neck on the sofa, as her mother on television reads a news item about German reparations for the bombing. The scene supplies more grist to the film's already complex incestuous thematics, and it's only appropriate, after all, that a film about quasi-incestuous passion should be this audaciously, self-devouringly involuted.


Julio Medem
Fernando Bovaira
Enrique López Lavigne
Julio Medem
Director of Photography
Gonzalo F. Berridi
Iván Aledo
Production Designers
Satur Idarreta
Karmele Soler
Estíbaliz Markiegi
Itziar Arrieta
Alberto Iglesias
©Sociedad General de Cine, S.A.
Production Companies
An Alicia Produce and Bailando en la Luna production for Sogetel
With the collaboration of Canal+/Sogepac
With the participation of Le Studio Canal+
Executive Producers
Txarli Llorente
Fernando de Garcillán
Production Supervisors
Carmen Sánchez
Akke Eklund
Production Co-ordinator
Heikki Ahonius
Production Managers
Fernando Victoria de Lecca
Klaus Heydemann
Rea Pihlasviita
Unit Managers
Angel García
Tiina Tuovinen
Location Manager
Petri Heino
Miryam Mateos
Ana Amigo
Monica Martinez
Assistant Directors
Antxon Zabala
Susana Gonzalez
Emma Bertran
Spain Snow:
Nacho Gutierrez
Mats Kuhlefelt
Script Supervisor
Montse Ordorica
Sara Bilbatua
2nd Camera Operators
Mario Montero
Rauno Ronkainen
Maarit Suomi
Finland 2nd Unit:
Jan Nyman
Digital Effects
Telson Internacional S.A.
Isaac de la Pompa
Pilar Cienfuegos
Chema Marcos
Alfonso Nieto
Special Effects
Molina Efectos Especiales S.L.
FX & Stunt Artists of Finland Oy
Art Directors
Satur Idarreta
Montse Sanz
Set Decorator
Jukka Uusitalo
Painting of Reindeer
Lola Barrera
Estíbaliz Markiegi
Karmele Soler
Itziar Arrieta
Telson Internacional S.A.
Filarmonica de Praga
Javier Paxariño
Victor Merlo
Orchestra Director
Mario Klemens
Music Producer
Lucio Godoy
Music Recordist/Mixer
José Luis Crespo
Music Recording
Red Led (Madrid)
Smeky Studio
"Sinitaivas" by Josef Rixner, Lauri Jauhiainen, George de Godzinsky, performed by Olavi Virta, Harmony Sisters
Direct Sound
Iván MarÍn
Mixing Technician
José Antonio Bermúdez
Sound Editors
Polo Aledo
Dulce Juanita
Studio Effects
Manuel Corrales
Najwa Nimri
Fele Martínez
Nancho Novo
Álvaro, Otto's father
Maru Valdivielso
Olga, Ana's mother
Peru Medem
Otto as a child
Sara Valiente
Ana as a child
Victor Hugo Oliveira
Otto as an adolescent
Kristel Díaz
Ana as an adolescent
Pep Munné
Javier, Otto's teacher
Jaroslaw Bielski
Álvaro Midelman
Rosa Morales
Ana's teacher
Joost Siedhoff
Otto Midelman
Beate Jensen
Otto's mother
Petri Heino
Outi Alanen
Maria Isasi-Isasmendi
shop assistant
Angela Castilla
boarding house landlady
Luz Nicolas
Concha Salinas
Elena Lombao
Montse Mostaza
Otto's girlfriends
Metro Tartan Distributors
9,742 feet
108 minutes 15 seconds
Dolby digital
In Colour
Super 35 [2.35:1]
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011