Hard as it is to begrudge a film as meticulously constructed and deeply felt as Julio Medem’s Lovers of the Arctic Circle, this avowedly whimsical, magic-realist take on destiny remains pinned to the ground by the obsessive exactitude of its own symbolism. It seems as though its every image has a twin in metaphor, and every tossed-off remark is meant as a secret maxim. Like the clandestine sweethearts of its title, this Spanish-language movie leads a double life, and soon enough begins to slip up and exhaust itself.
The film’s stamina is tested by a daunting plot, told in alternating chapters titled “Otto” and “Ana.” They meet at age eight, when Otto’s parents are breaking up and Ana’s father has just died; she convinces herself that her father’s spirit has entered Otto’s body. Remarkable timing of a different sort figures in when, as teenagers, Otto and Ana consummate their love about the same time that their parents decide to move in together. Tragedy soon spurs Otto’s departure and disappearance; he becomes a pilot, flying between Spain and Finland, while troubles of her own impel Ana, incredibly, toward Finland as well. There she meets another Otto, an old man, and decides he is the German pilot for whom her Otto was named.
Ana feels that this final coincidence is a harbinger of (unspecified) destiny; she sits down outside her cottage and literally waits for fate to happen. Ana’s chosen religion is one of ironic accidents, while Otto locates a guiding creed in the motions of orbits and cycles. But Otto’s repeated declaration that “Life is a circle”— a belief underscored by his and Ana’s palindromic names— would grate even if Elton John hadn’t beaten him to that punch, while Ana’s passive notion of destiny leaves her simply idle. Najwa Nimri’s brittle, melancholy performance, however, beautifully evokes Ana’s restless inertia; her huge eyes are deep pools stirred from beneath.
Desire is just about all Ana does, and though desire’s literal objective may be death, there needn’t have been so much of it here; the messier, better scenario would have let more folks stick around and try to resolve things themselves. Since writer-director Medem takes the melodramatic easy way out, he invites surely unwelcome comparison between his film and Sliding Doors, with its rotating narrative and fixation on what-if coincidences. Lovers of the Arctic Circle exhibits no more recognition than Ana does that chance can’t be contrived; though the wonderful Nimri braces her character for a revelation, the film’s final events seem as predictable as the path of a compass.