Mariano Llinás' La Flor is showing July and August on MUBI in the United States.
In the Argentinian film La Flor (2018), a certain kind of sight and a certain kind of sound predominate—spread right across its roughly thirteen-and-a-half hours and six major parts.
First, the sight. There are various directors in cinema history known for their stubborn insistence on using a particular camera lens which becomes their veritable stylistic signature: for example, the 25-millimeter lens for deep focus effect in Jacques Rivette; or the split diopter in Brian De Palma. Mariano Llinás takes the exactly opposite position in La Flor: his lens-weapon of choice is a defiantly shallow one, plunging great expanses of any frame into blur (after a while, you’ll think you need an appointment at the optometrist). Sometimes there’s a relatively traditional bit of focus-pulling back and forth between two points in a scene (between several characters, for instance). Far more often, it’s a mise en scène based on characters slowly walking out of blur and into focus—that is, if they ever make it into focus. Oddly, one of the only “characters” to get a royal, deep-focus treatment is Margaret Thatcher (played by Susana Pampín)!
Second, the sound. La Flor is a vast stream of different languages, accents, dialects, vocal tonalities. Talking, singing, laughing… but a great amount of it is post-synchronized. And the sync is deliberately off, hit-and-miss, like in some B movies (and in Orson Welles’s films, even when he’s doing Shakespeare). The lips and the words are often not matching (not to mention the framing segments where Llinás himself “speaks” to us in images where his mouth is resolutely closed!). It all has the sonic ambience of a studio recording. This sound design is not an accidental, coming-and-going effect: it’s total, from one end of this river-film to the other.
From its beginning, there is a very particular (and peculiar) childlike fantasy air to La Flor. Llinás points to the “deliberately cliché, infantile, almost primitive” quality of (especially) the first of its six tales. Despite the globe-wide location shooting, there’s not the slightest attempt at realism. The film evokes the basic elements of fantastic or adventure genres—horror of the mummy, international espionage—in a merry but also quite vague way; it is absolutely not a film of detailed, expert pastiches (Coen brothers or Todd Haynes style). We never find ourselves exclaiming, what a Hitchcockian-Langian-Aldrichian-Godardian homage! Because almost nothing of it proceeds in that way. It is reminiscent, on this level, of R.W. Fassbinder’s earliest shorts, The City Tramp (1966) and The Little Chaos (1967).
Rather, it’s as if someone, today, is remembering a sea of B movies they saw on TV or VHS in their youth—or, even more like an 11 year old kid with a mix of films, comic books, novels, picture books, and TV episodes in their head, supplying some approximate magma of the moves and clichés of action stories, pirate stories, girl-with-gun stories, whatever it may be. There’s betrayal, a showdown/rendezvous, incessant travelling from place to place, cutthroat revolutionaries living out their entire existence in forests.
But this is not just a matter of primitive thrill, a return to silent cinema or to more innocent, bygone days, as some commentators have described it (Llinás strenuously denies that the project is “nostalgic” in any way). The investigation into narrative (as in Llinás’ previous Extraordinary Stories, 2008) is intensive and expansive: stories branch off and loop around, the connections between parts may or may not be forthcoming, and there is an uncanny circulation of elements between the stories, as with the delicious repetition of the phrase “I am the fire.”
More generally, there is an elaborate play on voice-over narration: different voices in a relay, some inside the fiction and some outside of it, raising all the classic questions of narrative knowledge, control, and power, who holds it and who loses it.
In interviews, Llinás is at pains to downplay his own role as sovereign auteur of La Flor, so I’ll follow suit from now on. Not only is the production company that he’s part of, El Pampero Cine, a collective project, with many “creatives” attached at various levels, and their own accumulated stockpile of technical resources. La Flor, specifically, is a project devoted to, and devised in close collaboration with, its four major actors: Elisa Carricajo, Valeria Correa, Pilar Gamboa, and Laura Paredes, members since 2003 of the Buenos Aires experimental theater troupe, Piel de Lava (in their 2019 stage production Petróleo, they all played men).
Llinás speaks of attempting to create a one-off genre across the scope of the project: that is to say, the genre of films starring these four actors, taking on vastly different roles from one episode to the next. In a sense, it’s just like watching Humphrey Bogart or Marilyn Monroe or any star in the olden-classical days slide from part to part, always themselves and always other. La Flor places special emphasis upon the fun of seeing—and appreciating—the virtuosity of these female performers in such an ever-changing light.
I have been disappointed that much discussion of La Flor, particularly in the major French film magazines Cahiers du cinéma and Positif, does not grasp (or even mention) the deep affinities between a certain strain of European cinema modernism—as exhibited by Jacques Rivette and especially Raúl Ruiz—and the games being played here.1 One senses a certain (and no doubt casual or inadvertent) cultural reflex at work: La Flor is “Latin American,” and so the literary comparisons to Roberto Bolaño or Jorge Luis Borges come more “naturally” and easily to reviewers than the cinematic meta-fictions of Rivette, Alain Robbe-Grillet, or Ruiz. There is a crucial, international dimension being missed here. (Even these sources are, in themselves, already cosmopolitan: Ruiz had arrived in France from Chile, and Rivette collaborated with the Argentinian screenwriter Eduardo de Gregorio, who had attended Borges’s university classes.)
La Flor is often described as a dare, a provocation, a folly, a bold mix of diverse stories (and media)—but with the hint attached that there’s something somehow spontaneous, naïve, not altogether sophisticated or knowing, not really European, about the whole enterprise. But El Pampero Cine’s connection to intercontinental modernism runs deep, especially via the figure of the veritable mentor Hugo Santiago (1939-2018), whose directorial career bridged Argentina and France, working in the 1970s and ´80s with writers including Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares (of Morel’s Invention fame), and nouveau romancier Claude Ollier. This director’s final work, El cielo del centauro (2015), was co-produced by El Pampero Cine, and co-written by Llinás.
Another decent point of comparison for La Flor would be a similarly cosmopolitan figure, the Spanish writer (and, like Ollier, occasional film critic) Enrique Vila-Matas, author of Never Any End to Paris (2003), She Was Hemingway / I Am Not Auster (2008), and Electric Marienbad (2015). The impish humor, innocent air, casually convoluted (and involuted) plot structures, and faux naïveté of Vila-Matas’s prose finds a loose equivalency in the style and manner of La Flor. Moreover, Vila-Matas’s youthful, dissolute days in France during the 1970s connected him with various luminous figures of avant-garde modernism, such as the still too-little known and appreciated Adolfo Arrieta—and not forgetting Marguerite Duras, to whom he devoted his delightful text of memory, “Indochina Song.”
Let’s pursue further some of the cinematic echoes and affinities already mentioned. First off, Rivette. The performative aspect of La Flor is reminiscent of the special feminism of Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974)—this histrionic, put-on, dress-up, subversive-parodic style of women’s theatricality. And, intentionally or not, La Flor is, in some sense, the realization of Rivette’s mad (and sadly aborted mid-way) plan, immediately post the success of Céline and Julie, to make four features in a row (the Daughters of Fire series), in which certain elements—acting style, live music, popular genre templates, modes of mise en scène—would enter into an intensive “circulation” via playful, often improvised experimentation. There are even some plot triggers (such as the supernatural elements of gods and goddesses) that are similar across the two projects. Daughters of fire, daughters of flower.
The Ruiz connection is stronger still. In one of my favorite passages of La Flor, the narrator follows a strange but perfectly logical, cross-country trail of books found en route in various bookstores. The dizzy montage-citation of popular authors of fantastique tall tales thus provided (Chesterton, Poe, et cetera) is virtually identical to Ruiz’s personal desert-island selection of authors, as expressed in his films and interviews. There is even a Ruizian sound here: not just in the Wellesian post-sync, but also in the (literal) hours of dramatic music, aping an orchestra but produced mainly on a digital, synthesized keyboard, by Gabriel Chwojnik (check out his lively Spotify page!) in true Jorge Arriagada fashion. On a broader level of holistic soundtrack design, one can hear (like in Ruiz’s That Day, 2003) specific sound effects, such as the tinny three-note chime of an airport announcement service, progressively worked into the musical score.
More significantly—and to return to modernist tropes—La Flor begins just as Ruiz’s incredible Love Torn in Dream (2000) began, with a little intro explicating the diagrammatic formal structure (here in the shape of a flower) of all that is to follow: four stories without an ending (they each cut-out at a climax point); a fifth that is entire; and a sixth without a beginning. And inside that macro-network, there are all kinds of micro-games; Llinás refers to its making as the process of discovering (or rediscovering) the possibilities of fiction in cinema, rather than holding fiction at arm’s length, or minimizing it within a progressive/resistant political agenda.
The humor of La Flor—its level and its precise (shifting) tone—is a mighty intriguing aspect of the whole project. At the very start, I was ready to be put off by the insistent undercurrent of irony or sarcasm. The largely musical second episode takes that strain of comedy to delirious, Will Ferrell-ish heights of pop pastiche (the model here being the Argentinian brother-sister duo known as Pimpinela—dial up their videos on YouTube if you’ve never heard of them). But the laughs modulate appreciably across the entire work: by Episode 3 (in the segment “The Assassins”), there’s even an old-fashioned poignancy to the unspoken emotional lives of star-crossed spies.
Things tip into another register altogether in Episode 4, however—which I have seen described as partaking of the “autofiction genre.” (Is autofiction a genre? I guess so, by now.) It is zany stuff, with the director (played by an actor) escaping the escalating chaos and tension of his pre-production, in order to go off and film trees (for a project known—and drawn—not as The Flower but The Spider), complaining in his dairy about his all-female cast as a bunch of “witches.” Then we leap to another narrative, at first seemingly unconnected, of strange, supernatural events (a car in a tree, mad people possessed) and the investigation they prompt. This section of La Flor reminded me, more than anything else, of the work of another richly cosmopolitan figure, Portugal’s Miguel Gomes, and the drolly reflexive, “making of” thread woven into Our Beloved Month of August (2008).
At any rate, in La Flor, the word eventually does become flesh: the women really are witches, it seems—and in the best gag of all, one of them grabs a broom, runs swiftly out of frame and (in the same shot) is seen flying away in the distant sky. None of this fun, however, prepares us for the unexpectedly lyrical montage—of each woman alone, in various settings and landscapes—that concludes the episode.
The final two episodes of La Flor go further out with avant-garde experimentation: the “remake” of Jean Renoir’s Partie de campagne (1936) is completely silent—I mean it’s a disconcertingly, totally blanked-out soundtrack, without the usual subtle sound atmospheres or music scores that regularly accompany attempts at mocking up “modern silents.”
This is followed by a cryptic tale that employs a camera obscura as the means of cinematographically generating images, giving a trash-Sternbergian aura (Sternberg as processed by Jack Smith?), an effect that resembles covering the camera lens with a dirty stocking. Again, as with Ruiz throughout much of his career, this “process work” is proudly primitive, in-camera.
“The interaction of our four films will thus be redoubled by the progressive accentuation, from one film to the next, of these principles of mise en scène: from the first film, where they will function as an element of strangeness and dislocation within a dramatic construct still following the rules of romantic fiction – by way of the fantasy/horror film and the musical – to the fourth film, where various aspects are to be driven to paroxysm.”
—Jacques Rivette, prospectus for the Daughters of Fire series, circa 1975
Back in the 1980s, Juliet Berto remarked of Rivette’s Out 1 (1971)—another obvious comparison-point with La Flor, especially in terms of their respective gargantuan running times—that it would be best watched on TV, in weekly, serial instalments. That way, it would be “able to be followed by everyone, no problem,” and would be “even better than [70s TV series] Dallas,” in her opinion. Out 1, according to Berto, “was not written to be a single, 13-hour film and, moreover, it was not performed in that spirit, either.”2 La Flor, however, is another matter. Not only do the wildly irregular lengths of the episodes make it difficult to cut up; it is also essential to the experience of the total work that we fall vertiginously fall into the cracks, the abysses, between each episode, as well as the various jolts of sudden reorientation within certain episodes.
So by all means “go with the flow” of La Flor, binge-watch it like a TV series. But be ready for its special pleasures of progressive dissolution and paroxysm.