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Experiencing Mariano Llinás’s “La Flor”

What its like to watch Mariano Llinás’s three-part, eight-act, 14-hour epic as it unfolds over three days at it’s world premiere.
Save for the below three texts, written daily and without distance, my thoughts on Mariano Llinás’s La flor are now mostly lost and long gone. Premiered in three parts across three days at the tail-end of the 2018 Locarno Film Festival, this 14-hour film full of endless dead ends remains more memorable for the unique conditions of its viewing than for its many plots. 
In spite of instructive interludes scattered throughout—Llinás does announce each episode’s excluded beginning, middle, or end, an admonition that promises no unity other than the reliable reappearance and reinvention of its four star performers—any spectator would have every reason to doubt Llinas’s reliability as narrator, inclined instead to approach with caution and see for themselves. 
And so, with a unique opportunity to embrace uncertainty and be suspended in self-doubt, blindly writing on La flor became as pleasurable as watching La flor. Free of the need to state anything absolutely, and without the anxiety of trying to find finality, nowhere below was it necessary to rush to judge whether or not the film was, as many were quick to call it, a masterpiece. A year later, my thoughts on the whole of La flor are still circular and contradictory, self-conscious and meandering. Though it is conveniently self-serving, and a lazy and too-tidy reach at closure, I am tiredly tempted to see these these absurd writing exercises as mirroring the novelty of La flor itself: a carefree film (with an exceptionally indulgent duration) that takes so much pleasure in what might be considered—after the fact—as frivolous, expendable, or insignificant, a film that, in its structure, might subtly suggest how difficult it is to know what of the present moment will ultimately be of any consequence, what at all matters when life goes on. 
PART ONE (Episodes 1 & 2)
Published on: Aug 10, 2018 @ 12:40 GMT
Where to begin? Described by the 71st edition’s artistic director Carlo Chatrian as “a new way to watch films,” Argentine director Mariano Llinás’s latest has been touted as the longest film in the history of the great Locarno Festival. Running an exceptional 14 hours, the first 206 minutes of Llinás’s episodic epic—to be more specific, six stories told in three parts—proved a promising pulp anomaly. So far, so good. La Flor, a celebratory showcase that, in spite of its daunting duration, is not yet ever uneventful, is in no sense slow or contemplative cinema: a form that, by design, might produce the kind of fatigue necessary to find whatever epiphany lies beyond our boredom.
Though its many plots seem to extend into perpetuity, La Flor, variously abbreviated and abridged, instead flourishes with an abandon, following no rules other than its own. Llinás’s prologue begins with two images, both blatant superstructural metaphors—a man-made, metal scaffolding and a tall tree in bloom—before he frames the film’s narrative: outlining the order of his episodes, introducing his four formidable actors (Pilar Gamboa, Elisa Carricajo, Laura Paredes and Valeria Correa) and explicitly instructing his viewer how they may want to watch this film. We are told that, though divided into three parts, La Flor will subvert a typical three-part structure, that there will be no satisfactory sequence of beginning-middle-end. Leafing through a notebook, Llinás lingers on a diagrammatic representation of his project: four arrows that shoot and sprout upwards in phototropism, another that burrows below, and a strange semi-circle that connects the latter to the former.
Though it remains too soon to say, Episode 1 may see Llinás setting out as he means to continue—with metatextual material (a handwritten title card, an epigraph) and the manic storytelling style of a madman. Schlock sci-fi in the style of a telenovela, the film’s preposterous, passionate first episode borrows the sweaty aesthetics of a B-movie to produce pure hysteria: a kitsch monstrosity of film references that stretch into self-consciously silly pastiche. Clad in lab coats, La Flor’s four actors find themselves in the genre of body horror—the kind of melodramatic midnight movie that might throw around near-nonsensical pseudoscience as “symptomatology” and “psycho-transference.” When not shouting over one another, or silenced by the film’s outrageously exaggerated orchestral score, each fall victim to a curse unleashed virally, and inexplicably, by exhumed mummified remains.
Where La Flor’s Episode 1 begins with a quotation from French philosopher René Char, Episode 2 opens with a short, one-line lyric from a different era and different epoch: Nico and the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning.” Combining several styles, and more metafiction with a uniquely interesting degree of inconsistency, the more curious, more intriguing Episode 2 is split down the middle by an ambiguous internal ellipsis—multiplying its plots, and constructing two stories that are are surely interconnected—though it is left for the viewer to decide the amount of reticulate and complex connective tissue it would take to tether plot-A to plot-B.
Firstly, there is the feud between two members of a musical duo “Siempreverde,” and the breakdown of their relationship as conveyed in past-tense black-and-white and performative, maudlin-level melancholy. Secondly, and simultaneously, there is a hardboiled, paranoid spy thriller—a parallel plot that seems to take place in an entirely different world, one populated by very bad men named Frank, femme fatales who only ever meet either cliffside or in empty parking lots (exchanging wordless, withering glances in spite of their sunglasses) and a network of conspirators who gather al fresco to discuss scorpion tattoos and possibility of autonomous cellular regeneration vis a vis venom. Slowly, one story creeps toward the other—though not completely satisfactorily—and the episode culminates in a cliffhanger we know well enough will not be resolved. Part 1—in isolation, a frustrating double feature divided by a dramatic do-over—sets in motion a film of such wild width and breadth that may make its objective analysis inextricable from its sometimes stressful, always subjective viewing experience: held to its pace and holding your face in your hands. To begin to search for something synecdochical might be a mistake, though some irresistible possible motifs—medicinals and metatoxins—may have already emerged. Exceeding and challenging our expectations a decade after his last film, Extraordinary Stories, how these individual, imperfect narratives may or may not relate to the whole of Llinás’s La Flor remains to be seen, and to be continued.
PART TWO (Episode 3)
Published on: Aug 11, 2018 @ 08:00 GMT
Part 2 of Mariano Llinás’s ever-expanding and increasingly gregarious La Flor begins in media res—albeit not at all where we last left off. “Somewhere in the 80s,” we are told by a now-narrating, now-omniscient Llinás at the beginning of this 342 minute part, four French-speaking spies are gathered “somewhere in South America.” Global and geopolitical, this more novelistic drama spans several continents and countless characters, and though Part 2 is subdivided numerically and neatly into 10 smaller section, it nonetheless never reveals anything except what you do not expect it to.
Again and again, the audience is reminded that there are only “good guys and bad guys,” and that, as in any other slick, suspenseful spy thriller, there will be twists and turns, endless secrets and lies and characters who double-, triple-, or quadruple-cross one another. Their mission, Operation Hercules, is framed once by a character named Casterman—an investigator in Brussels—and once more by a third-person narrator—clearly the voice of Llinás, a figure sometimes omniscient (and very able to inform us, in impressive monologues of the interiority of his characters), and sometimes, simultaneously, somewhat hesitant, qualifying all he reveals with a conditional “maybe.”
As we wait for a showdown between the film’s two sets of spies—a duel due to take place at dawn—Llinás surveys the film’s first setting in 360 degree spins of his camera, in long takes that are both placid and, at the same time, suggestive of who or what may be hiding and taking cover in the foliage of these flatlands. With Llinás as our narrator, the viewer is given their own opportunity to investigate the espionage he himself may be up to. Working backwards, sometimes sideways, but never forwards, Llinás is evidently hard-at-work to build out a universe for a film far more aching, intimate and character-driven than one would initially expect.
There is an admirable amount of risk involved here, the filmmaker subversively focusing so much on characterization in a genre in which people, mere devices, are quickly introduced and just as quickly disposed of. It is a testament to the talent of La Flor’s four actresses, then, that this unpredictable procedure of Llinás’s works so well: their performances in four individual origin stories (occupying four of Part 2’s ten sections) are mostly silent, any dialogue almost always dominated by Llinás’s Spanish-language voiceover.
The first of these is for Theresa: a mute woman recruited to crack codes and forge signatures across Cold War-era Berlin (one noir-ific scene taking place on Fritzlangstrasse) and London, even encountering a giddily-grotesque Margaret Thatcher in her investigation of “The Bishop” and “The Ballerina.” Unlike our other spies—agents who follow scripts—Theresa’s work is that of a spectator who solely and silently sits and stares. Something easier to see after subsequent stories is the strange significance of this, the most exaggerated, tongue-in-cheek, and even poorly-dubbed of Part 2’s stories: a sequential bait-and-switch by Llinás that begins first with farce and then with tragedy.
The more moving, more tragic background detail offered to our other spies seems to serve as a reminder to reorient our expectations. Returning to Operation Hercules’s earlier, initially quite inane scene, Llinás switches focalization from third-person to first—to the bound-and-gagged, and kidnapped Dreyfuss. In a surprisingly sweet and sincere inner monologue—in which he attempts to deduce whether he may be in Yugoslavia or Romania—he then stalls, and squints skyward to gaze at the inverted order of the Southern Hemisphere’s constellations of stars. Llinás’s strategy seems to be is that of the supplementary: a true deluge and surplus of information that adds only to replace.
Bringing us all the way to an Experimental Centre of Aerospace Technology in Sweden—an operation led by the wife of Dreyfuss—Llinás never again invites us back. Though technically throwaway, a series of blueprints scrutinized in this scene may immediately make La Flor’s eager audience sit up straight‚ and in spite of not, in fact, providing some superstructural solution that the viewer quite conditioned to look for, the line of dialogue offered instead may be exemplar of what La Flor’s audience ought to begin preparing themselves for. “It will get on fire with the crew inside. It will blow to smithereens.” Bursting brilliantly with the kind of errors that problematize narrative, it’s still no mistake that, later in Part 2, the viewer encounters another narrator: disembodied, off-screen, the voice of an utterly unknown woman whose presence alone undermines and renders unreliable Llinás’s organizational authority. Functioning similarly is a return to Llinás’s prologue, and Llinás’s later appearance a character within his innermost frame: a mole, named Boris, who confronts one of our Siberia-bound spies. Speaking only in Russian, there is seemingly no discrepancy between diegesis and extradiegesis, Boris’s contribution (that the earth could be circled five times with the network of rail tracks in the Soviet Union) and how it is conveyed in Spanish-language voiceover.
Challenging a hierarchy that destructively designates what kind of information is and is not essential to a story, Llinás is, once more, reluctant to offer a resolution that could—retroactively—make the viewer’s 3-, 9-, or 14-hour investment “worthwhile.” Mention of the Proustian quality of the venom of a Tsetse fly aside, more apparent than ever is how unlikely there even exists an ending that could satisfactorily unify such different stories, a parting gift that would allow the viewer to tidily fix their interpretations, so that they may move on. La Flor—so courageously self-aware of its own disposability—instead asks its viewer not to call Llinás’s bluff, and to find their gratification elsewhere. Fortunately, in this sometimes deadpan, sometimes slapstick comedy caper—a film full of present-tense pleasure and so playfully in love with narrative as a tool of “knowing” (“gnarus”) and “telling” (“narro”)—there is, as of now, no shortage of places where one might find it.
PART THREE (Episodes 3, 4 & 5)
Published on: Aug 12, 2018 @ 16:24 GMT
“It’s been a pleasure,” Mariano Llinás politely informs us between Episodes 4 and 5 of this film’s 320-minute, thorny third part, before he hits the road in his blue Volvo and leaves La Flor’s loyal viewers in his rear-view mirror. After the sizable, solitary Part 2, Part 3 is formed in fits and starts, a crucial and challenging Episode 4 followed-up by flash fictions, a further two curiosities that anticlimactically conclude the 14-hour La Flor. For the first time, the viewer re-enters the film with the knowledge that, in however-many hundred minutes that remain, La Flor, at last, will cut to black—and indeed there is something stress-inducing involved in watching our showman-storyteller Mariano Llinás carry his project across the finish line. Even an abrupt, unresolved ending is still an ending, and in spite of all evidence to the contrary, a viewer at the beginning of Part 3 would wonder if the sum of La Flor’s partial parts may still amount to some unified whole.
Episodes 5 and 6 move slowly, the former the film’s most acute counterpoint: a romantic re-adaptation of Jean Renoir’s take on Guy de Maupassant’s A Day in the Country (Partie de campagne). Though re-locating the text to contemporary Argentina, La Flor’s four actors are nowhere to be found, and their absence is truly palpable. The latter, an adaptation of fragments from the possibly-fictional turn-of-the-century memoirs of Sarah S. Evans, thankfully reunites Llinás with this quartet, who appear here as the titular colonist, a creole woman, a mestizo girl, and her mother. Llinás’s camera—covered, who knows how, in a lush layer of material—nonetheless keeps his players at a distance, undifferentiated from one another in dried-out and cracked compositions. Above all, Episodes 5 and 6 might act as an opportunity for the viewer to reflect on their own reluctance to exit one story and enter another, and perhaps these relatively underwhelming entries both follow the excellent Episode 4—La Flor at its most fantastic and frustrating.
The viewer does not initially realize that the filmmaker at the centre of the exhaustingly metafictional Episode 4 is not actually played by Mariano Llinás. The filmmaker—absolutely still a stand-in for Llinás—only appears on-screen long after the Episode begins, and long after there begins a mutiny among his four actors. They are, of course, played by La Flor’s four actors, and after filming his project “The Spider” for six straight years, when the actors demand from him a finished script (“the know-it-all knows nothing!”), their filmmaker flees for the forests. On September 13th, a Tuesday, Episode 4’s filmmaker begins writing in a notebook (of a reminiscent red color), a diary of his travels and the details of his new fascination with filming trees, and, later, how exactly his film’s spider-like structure must be expanded into that of an ant. 
If this sounds too familiar—too indulgent, disappointingly direct or self-referential—and, not to mention, a repetitive use of a somewhat lazy expositional device, it is fortunate that in its second chapter, La Flor’s Episode 4 grows more interested in reflecting not Llinas’s filmmaking process, but the viewer’s experience of watching Llinas’s filmmaking process: a depiction of one tormented man’s egocentrism framed by another. Unsurprisingly in a film full of narratives that are timed to self-destruct, the first chapter of La Flor reaches a certain limit, and so turns around to fold or implode in on itself. An ellipsis pulls the viewer forward a few months later, leaving one to wonder why a newly-introduced character, a man named Gotto, has travelled 5,000 miles to himself investigate what becomes all of our shared episode of interest—why and how a certain filmmaker’s blue Volvo has been found up chased up a tree, an asinine absurdity nonetheless consistent with La Flor’s integral tongue-in-cheek imagery, its most self-aware puns puncturing holes and deflating the film’s fictions. 
Told in a one-sided epistolary style, Gotto is equipped with a map and magnifying glass, eventually acquiring the very notebook that framed all of the Episode’s first chapter. And though Gotto’s entrance to the situation is of course different to the viewer’s—the latter always at the mercy of the motivations of the former—he remains their only hope to move forward through this interactive hypertext. What follows is a proliferation plot to pick apart like Prometheus: a sliding scale of information whose consequentiality is contingent on the degree of the recipient’s patience and paranoia. Fully capable of fulfilling their own fantasies, the viewer is asked to actively participate, although to work with such a large amount of material—and to expand one’s capacity to retain more and more information as their resources deplete—means that to interpret La Flor is to be subjective and selective, to ruthlessly reorder the pieces of its puzzle in whatever way one sees fit. Circling back and swapping one stand-in for another, it is a process that recalls the inability of the filmmaker to himself see the forest for the trees in Episode 4’s parody of contemplative hermeneutics.
Against all odds, Episode 4 actually does arrive at an ending: our detective discovering beneath a paragraph in a translation of Casanova’s memoirs and written all in capitals: “EUREKA.” The text in question writes of Casanova’s unconsummated sexual relationships with four women, his advances welcomed and then rejected, until the realization that the supposed-protagonist was no more than a mere proxy for these four women to communicate with one another. This is—of course—indicative of the inherent tautological endlessness of desire, “ad nauseam” arousal and so-called reading-for-the-plot, the desire to end desire, to finish what you have started. A postmodern, metaphysical mystery of a man and his muses, this specific narrative is perhaps not so groundbreaking a full five decades after the beginnings of poststructuralist theory and at least four decades after Jacques Rivette’s Out 1, but what follows—a self-reflexive self-portrait of filmmaker and his regrets—is a surprise both real and redemptive. Determined now to pivot back from plants to people, and reintroduce to his film the human element Llinás laments, and likens his the four of his actors to a flower.
After six episodes, the full 808-minute La Flor can be seen as Llinás’s final genre experiment, an unfriendly yet flexible film serial that still gives more than it takes. With internal ellipses that leave endings out, or cut episodes short, the lack of any obvious connection between Episodes 4, 5, and 6 might reflect the disconnected nature of the film as a whole, speaking to how these short stories are not in fact speaking to one another. To watch La Flor is to allow Llinás to elude you, to understand that his sparks of spontaneity and seemingly improvised narratives are nonetheless terribly thought-through. At the same time, implicit in this incompletion is a certain ceding of control, an offer of authority and authorship extended from Llinás to his viewer. The filmmaker prunes the narrative only in order to stimulate its growth, to make space for something new. Stretching into infinity, and incredulously beyond its aforementioned “EUREKA” moment, La Flor’s Episode 4 in fact continues and concludes in its own alternative way—one that is endless rather than ending-less. Another series of questions are raised only to go unanswered, and for the first time, Mariano Llinás’s love of the lack of endings strikes us as miraculous. Enough is enough.

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