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Emotional Geography: Julio Medem’s "Lovers of the Arctic Circle" and "Room in Rome"

The celebrated Basque director transforms chance encounters into human connections freed from time in two complicated love stories.
Savina Petkova
Julio Medem's Lovers of the Article Circle (1998) is showing November 17 – December 16 on MUBI in the United Kingdom and November 25 – December 24, 2018 in the United States, and Room in Room (2010) is showing November 18 – December 17, 2018 on MUBI in the United Kingdom.
Room in Rome
Kairos is a specific word that the Ancient Greeks used to describe time, not in its lineal nature, but an opportune moment or critical, chance timing. Kairos is composed by circumstances capturing the most elusive part of our lives, half-fate, half-luck, activated by human agency. Celebrated Basque director Julio Medem, in his filmmaking strokes, has a way of taming this crucial notion of time, transforming chance encounters into kairotic human interaction. His orchestration of character development over the course of a lifetime in Lovers of the Arctic Circle (1998) or a night, as in Room in Rome (2010), represents the magical transformative power of intersubjectivity and intimacy. Both films position and explore their own geography as center and periphery: the axis of the Arctic Circle and that of Rome as a center to the historical European world spin and whirl desires and become meeting points of the love-bound characters. The extensive history of Rome has its solid ground counterpart in nation-specific events referenced in Lovers (such as the Bombing of Guernica or the Franco dictatorship). This emotional geography overlaps with the pulling force of both geophysical actuality and time. Both films center around the summer solstice—the shortest night in the Northern hemisphere, or the midnight sun at the Arctic circle. A mythical time-out-of-time which encapsulates the idea of eternal life. 
The notion of right timing is at once imminent and elusive. While young Otto (Peru Medem) is drawn to rushing Anna (Sara Valiente) in Lovers of the Arctic Circle, the whole adult world is eclipsed, dislocated, and blurred, as he wonders secretly, “Where do girls run to?” Their meeting of fate is bound by the right timing of bad news: on the day they fall in love Anna’s father dies and Otto’s parents decide to separate. Fated by childhood trauma, both of them sublimate their grief into affection for each other in a psychological structure that brings them closer than brother and sister, as Otto’s father falls for Anna’s mother. Impelled by this emotional, not empirical memory, Lovers of the Arctic Circle gyrates between past, present, and future, dislocating real-life and fictional places. The Arctic Circle itself is almost utopian—a non-place, Fin-land, the finite land,  a space that “evaporated all sense of time,” as Medem himself shared when he presented Cows (1992) at the Festival of the Midnight Sun in Lapland. Similarly, Room in Rome merges millennia of history and cultural heritage in the Ancient center of the world as a bygone utopia. The temporal and spatial disorientation is intimately intertwined with emotional weight and the ideal, soulmate definition of love. 
If Lovers of the Arctic Circle is an endless spiral, Room in Rome is a meeting of two planets which entangle in the same orbit. The gravity that holds together both couples is of the same kind: composing a single entity, an embodiment of eternal love. The myth of missing halves is the gravitational pull that inexplicably binds together Otto and Anna and the validation of the growing affection between Natasha (Natasha Yerovenko) and Alba (Elena Anaya) in Room in Rome. On one hand, the later film has an epochal span, bouncing from Antiquity (as the drawn map of Caesar’s Rome) to Renaissance (the paintings on the wall), to present time (the 3D globe of the earth and its satellite maps), encapsulating all eras between four walls of a hotel room. What could turn up to be a claustrophobic mise en scène, cinematographer Alex Catalán fills up the frame with pulsating reds and warm caresses of yellow and burgundy to frame its salacious and gentle invitation, not unlike the tempting image of the Venetian house in The Comfort of Strangers (Paul Schrader, 1990). On the other hand, Lovers of the Arctic Circle is bathed in blue, grey, and bleached whites, so as to compose a contrasting canvas and to suspend the overflowing romanticism of this inevitable love story. Kieslowski’s Blue (1993) and Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961) were both used as reference points for hyperborean cinematography and kaleidoscoping editing which isolate the young couple’s stubborn optimism and insistence on love’s mythical inevitability.
The opening sequence of Room in Rome oversees two women giggling in the dark of night, holding hands as if to part, and this God’s eye point-of-view zooms out and retreats into the intimacy of a hotel room. Alba comes from Spain, Natasha is Russian, and their chance meeting in Rome takes the film on a passionate wave that splashes, retreats, and comes back stronger. As the two women enter the quiet room, their state of exaltation, inebriation, and arousal buzzes in the air like electric sparks in the dimly lit space. The atmosphere is engulfed by an appetizing tango song, until the sound of undressing becomes boisterous. Passion as a dance, affection as a game of aliases—Medem constructs a visceral world that has its intimate epicenter overlapping with the caput mundi (capital of the world), Rome.
Sharing the same timespan with another love-encounter film, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995),  Room in Rome promises a night of sex and story-telling, orchestrating the 1001 Nights atmosphere as a space where everything shared is equally true and false. Whether it’s Alba’s story of being trapped in a Sheikh’s harem, or Natasha’s acting career, both women gradually depart from their multi-layered composed personas, succumbing to an overpowering pull to authenticity, as the clothes they left on the floor resemble the skins they had shed to find each other.  
While the space is contained a room, the way Alba’s fingertips trace an old map of Rome to link the ancient Temple of the Nymphs with Natasha’s hotel named Ninfa, is no different than her caress on Natasha’s body—drawing parallels between knowing a body and knowing a city. The center and periphery are key to the film’s gravity: the events orbit around the dimly lit bed, which is a place for repose, sex, tears, consolation, and self-discovery. Framing the axis of the bed as a meeting point, Medem re-stages it again and again as the characters “meet” each other multiple times, gradually coming to terms with their sprung feelings. Similarly, Otto and Anna’s relationship gravitates around the Arctic Circle, as their first kiss takes place over a geographical atlas showing the mystical topography. As Anna maps out her desire to visit Lapland, Otto’s spur of affection overthrows social boundaries to kiss his step-sister as his soulmate. If Lovers of the Arctic Circle is symbolized by planes as transport means to the promised Eden, Room in Rome is validated by satellites. Both planes and satellites, they see things impartially from above, hold record, give leverage, and hold the bigger picture together, their objective view approximating eternity. Both couples fit like puzzle pieces under the universe’s graceful blessing—Alba and Natasha are validated by the aerial photo of their bed sheet-flag. Otto and Anna, on the other hand, align as star-crossed lovers, almost meeting in Finland, yet their palindromic names have been a clue for their mutual belonging all along.
Medem tackles the periphery of relationship ethics with a fine mastery, sculpting passionate characters to empathize and fall in love with. The underlying assumption of Lovers of the Arctic Circle is that of potential incest, although the protagonists are not blood-related. In a lurking in the corner of Room in Rome hides the ghost of infidelity. In the inevitability of his love worlds, Medem fleshes out a pure image of human understanding, which transcends social boundaries, and like a spring of eternal youth, extracts the essence of love: robust, bursting at the seams, frantic and sensual in both warmth and coldness. Whether meeting or missing each other, his characters constitute eternity, as an anachronic embrace becoming the opposite of linear time.


Julio MedemNow Showing
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