In Julio Medem's films, the universe can erupt in your head. The levels of reality are mixed, there's nothing and no one to be sure of. In The Red Squirrel (1993), his Cannes prize-winning second film, a bike falls straight from the sky on to a beach that looks like the moon. In his latest, Tierra, the Spanish countryside looks like Mars. It ripples with a plague of woodlice. Its protagonist Angel's mind surges from the inside of his skull to the outskirts of the galaxy, ripped literally in two by what he sees and feels. In The Red Squirrel, a man claims his blood has frozen in his veins now he's without the lover who's abandoned him, and cuts off a chunk of flesh to prove it. It takes minutes for the blood, held in place by his yearning, to begin to gush. But for all that, he can't find a way to his lover's heart, the place she keeps under her unbroken skin, a skin which, under Medem's gaze, looks like the surface of a planet.
Medem's world isn't like the Spanish cinema we're used to, the camp, roaring emotions of Luna or Almodovar. If he's like anyone, it might be the Canadian Atom Egoyan, another master of the balance between sensual heat and mysterious cool. He's been aided by a gang of collaborators, a rep company of renegade like minds. In Tierra, they're all present and correct: Carmelo Gomez's searching gaze, piercing as The Red Squirrel's cheek-scissoring lover, is pained in the new film: Nancho Nova's constant smirk melts from arrogant cool in one film to sang-froid acceptance in the next; most extraordinary of all is Emma Suarez, perhaps Medem's true muse, who, like the others, has been a constant since his first film, Vacas. In The Red Squirrel her emotional electricity short-circuited everyone's plans; in Tierra, she's the improbably plain adorer of Angel's torn soul, a woman who doesn't want to be denied. Like Medem's films, his actors seem to vary in their natures from one movie to the next, but stay close to immutable cores. It's as if they're in symbiosis with their director.
Meeting Medem, you want to discover the sinuous personality that anyone who makes such exhilarating cinema must possess. But he maintains an intellectual's mask. A polite, unexceptionally handsome man of 38, all he'll show is the mind that constructs his mysteries, not the soul that needs them. Ask if he sees landscapes like the scorched, alien terrains that overwhelm you in Tierra, and he shifts the blame on to a character. "The way Angel thinks and sees the land is very subjective," he says. "It's not my point of view. It's just this guy's."
Angel seems to sum up how objective reality evaporates in the heat of Medem's visions. He can conceive of swarms of stars and the woodlice that mass under his feet, each a mystery. He's lost in the "dark ocean" of his brain. For Medem, Tierra can be explained as one character's cure. "Angel is lost inside his own consciousness," he states. "He has two fears, and they're the same. He's scared of death, and he's scared of the unknown - the unknown meaning of the laws that rule the universe, that he can't control, and doesn't understand. Though Angel thinks he is very small in comparison with the universe, his imagination is so big he can even see the units of the universe. There's a danger of being very lonely, if you're too conscious of what's going on in the world, in the universe. That's what's happening at the beginning of the movie. He's got his eyes turned inward. I wanted him to look out at what's around him. He shouldn't have to look further. In The Red Squirrel, there's a contrary process. The man in it dominates the girl in some ways. But he can't get further than her skin. He can't get inside her any further. He can't get into the fear that she has, he can't get near it, he can't help her in that way. I want to show that we're on our own here. There's nobody to help us."
Such metaphysical obsessions can't just be explained in terms of characters. Medem's work surges with leaps from the cosmic to the concrete, whatever the film's subject. Surely Medem himself must have some sympathy with Angel's visions - with the idea that, if we look inside our skulls, we'll find a cosmos of awful complexity? "Everyone can look inside and find things that no one else knows," he says guardedly. "For me, it has to do with the process of creativity. When you create, you turn far away from where you are. You lose contact with the earth. In my movies, I want people to feel emotions first of all, to feel things through their skin. Afterwards, they can start to think about these things."
It's tempting to see the influence of Medem's youth, when he gained a medical degree, in his microscopic attention to skin and brains. But Medem dismisses the notion. He specialised, it turns out, in psychiatry, and felt sick every time he cut into a body. Nor does he think psychiatry plays much of a part in his films. He could analyse his characters once a film is over. But as he films, such cold logic is the last thing on his mind. It's cinema only that courses through his veins. He was making short films in his teens, and worked as a film critic before Vacas allowed him to fully explore the medium. Watching his films, it seems as if there's something almost transcendent in the process.
"It's like a journey," he agrees. "When I finish a movie, when I come back, I've lost something. I've left it behind. It leaves a hole, a void, which I have to fill with another film." Angel talks in the same terms about coming back from the dead. "I don't feel like the same person who made Vacas or The Red Squirrel or Tierra any more," Medem continues, "because I'm already working on a new film." What did he leave behind in Tierra? "I left behind something I don't like in myself," he says, then pauses. "Angel has one of the fears that I'm obsessed with, that there's nothing after death, just a void. Sometimes when you talk about your fears, or when you make a film about them, you can make them happen. Sometimes you can feel liberated. The balance this time isn't clear."
It's curious that Medem started making films so early. Is cinema really in his blood? Is it as vital to his life as it seems? "It's true that I made films as a teenager," he begins. Then he makes an unexpected leap. "When I make a movie, I'm addressing the teenager I've still got inside of me. I want to know if he approves or disapproves of everything I do. It has to do with the feelings that a teenager shows. His mind isn't finished. That's what interests me most." He changes tack again. "It's why pop music is still important to me. You have to be aware of new music as it comes out because it changes, and it makes something change inside you. It helps to make things change in my mind." The man whose intellect is as restless as anyone in cinema pauses, completing his thought. "It helps me change every time I make a film"n
`Tierra' goes on release in the UK on 8 August
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies