Weighted with symbolism, unfettered by linear narrative, situated on an upside-down Earth where Spain is frozen and the North Pole basks in sunshine, Julio Medem’s tragic romance is always human-size in emotional scale despite its fancy trappings. The circular story line begins with images that are neither compelling nor enlighteninga plane crashes in the snow, a young man runs down a brightly lit street, a red bus goes by, a woman’s eyes are mirrors. By the end, these same images, informed by a series of memories that unfold in flashback in between, take on enormous emotional weight.
Medem is a master of control; not an image nor word is wasted in this magical accumulation of detail, coincidence, and maddening recurrence. It’s no accident that his characters discuss Cézanne’s motivesthe painter shares with the director a passion for interlocking forms and extravagant expression through quotidian delineation. His story concerns Ana (Najwa Nimri) and Otto (Fele Martínez), who meet as Spanish schoolchildren in the aftermath of familial miseries. Ana’s father has died in a car crash; with a child’s instinctive faith in escape, she runs willy-nilly through the woods, where Otto finds her. Hopeful and childish, she connects Otto’s appearance to her father’s disappearance, sure that his spirit inhabits the boy’s body. To Ana, Otto’s existence is validation of her strange, self-destructive faith in coincidence, a faith Medem gleefully rewards and disappoints in equal measure. It is also the first string to be plucked in what will become a subtextual symphony of incestuous evocations throughout the film.
Otto’s family is also dissolving, and when he chases a soccer ball into the woods and comes upon the fallen Ana, he recognizes her as a fellow orphan, not just in the familial sense but in a universal one. Obsessed with airplanes and flight, with storms, cold weather, and his gloriously blond German mother, Otto feels out of place in Spain and in the presence of his blustery, weak, skirt-chasing father, Alvaro (Nancho Novo). As the children’s relationship grows in slightly creepy intensity, their driving forcesalienation and coincidencebring together their parents; eventually, Ana’s mother, Olga (Maru Valdivielso), and Otto’s father marry, and the young lovers are united under one roof.
Medem presents these segments casually, without dramaticsthe remarkably crisp camerawork and cool composition muffle the tone, and he ages the children from tots to teens so abruptly we’re too stunned not to accept the new actors inhabiting these characters. It isn’t as confusing as it is dreamlike; a fable, like this dual one switching between the lovers’ points of view even when they are together, makes more heart sense than head sense. Recurring images contribute to the plot but also build in resonance as more of the palindromic lovers’ lives is revealed. Otto connects love with fuel and lives in terror of running out of gas, so that when his mother dies of a broken heart, he melts down shatteringly, the circularity of fate mocking him in the rounded doorway through which he sees her casket burn. Red buses pull into intersections, and paper airplanes shower down from Otto’s schoolroom window and whoosh across the desk of the children grown-up Ana teaches after she marries Otto’s old teacher, Javier. Each coupling is a funhouse image of another. The teenagers learn about lovemaking from the inspiration of a wild storm and by watching their parents; meanwhile, the parents remain oblivious to the nature of the step-sibling lovers’ relationship. Ana’s mother eventually leaves Otto’s Alvaro for another Alvaro; Ana first recognizes Otto as an individual when she learns that he’s named for another Otto, a German pilot; this doubling gives her enough strength to forgo the fantasy that her young lover is her father reincarnated.
This bulwark of symbols and near misses actually manages to clarify the confusing story, since its constants are so profuse. The central couple are actually apart for much of their young livesAna marries the aforementioned Javier while Otto enjoys a variety of one-night stands, all of whom admire photographs of his beaming blond mother. He becomes a courier pilot, making multiple passes over the Arctic Circle, whose stillness and unforgiving climate have always fascinated him. Finally, Ana escapes to the Arctic, lucking into one last extraordinary coincidence that she is too enraptured to understand has depleted her store of dumb luck. In the circle, the pair circle one another, almost finding what they’re looking for, and the planes, the buses, the irises of Ana’s eyes, the perfect spheres of their names close in for the last time.
Somehow Medem manages to chime different notes off each of these potent symbols without freighting his story; it’s fluid and crystalline, funny and kind. The script forgives the misguided parents for their selfishness and lack of understandingthey, more than the adolescents, are victims of their hormones and regrets. And despite all the worldly knowledge available to adults, they can teach nothing to children. Ana and Otto make each other and the unit they constitute into a worldthey see whole families in each other, cling together while talking jauntily about fate, and create in their love a distant space compared to which the actual Arctic Circle is pedestrian. CP