What is one to do with a 14-hour film? That’s what Mariano Llinás's La Flor, his first feature since 2008’s brilliant Extraordinary Stories, boasts as its runtime, and since virtually the moment it was announced, the answer seems to be “talk about its length.” There are a handful of films of legendary duration scattered throughout the annals of film history—Jacques Rivette’s 11-hour Out 1 (1971), Claude Lanzmann’s 10-hour Shoah (1985), Wang Bing’s 9-hour West of the Tracks (2002)—plus the odd miniseries or two, but evidently not enough for the collective film community to greet another with anything other than shock and awe.
So, again, what is one to do? We might begin by describing it. As its director informs us in the first scene, La Flor consists of six separate stories, which we might be tempted to even call six separate films, all (except, interestingly, the fifth) made with the same four actresses. The first four lack an ending; the fifth, “like a short story,” contains a beginning, middle and end and is a remake of “an old French film“; the final lacks a beginning, opening in the middle. Aside from what exactly constitutes a “beginning” and an “ending”—we must, after all, enter and exit these stories somewhere, and referring to those spots as “the beginning” and “the end” seems unobjectionable—more questions arise: Six separate stories—are they good? Does this disavowal of traditional storytelling work? Do they ever come together in some way, thematic or otherwise? Do we really need them all to be so lengthy, and consequently for La Flor to be 14 hours? All of these are the wrong questions, not because of how La Flor addresses or avoids them, but instead because the film seems entirely uninterested in such questions. The thought of a shorter La Flor, the need to finish a story, the need to connect its threads, are utterly alien to the film and the experience of watching it. Indeed, that mere thing, the experience of watching it, is the primary reward that La Flor offers its viewers.
Crucially, the segments of La Flor are presented in the order they were shot. Watching it, one can chart the evolution of a filmmaker and share Llinás' epiphanies. La Flor is nothing if not a durational experience—perhaps an understatement given its length, but a necessary one given that accusations of excess are unavoidable for any such work. It took Llinás approximately nine years to make the film, an arc that saw him closely follow a script for two segments only to ignore the written dialogue in the third in order to get more naturalistic performances from his actors. The resulting five-hour behemoth gave way to the unscripted fourth segment, Llinás’s interrogation of his own filmmaking method as well as a sort of relinquishing of authorship. In it, a filmmaker’s diary is discovered by an inquisitive (if biographically fixated) character whose determination to understand the director leads him on a rewarding journey, even if, unbeknownst to him, it is also leads him wildly astray of authorial intention. His final two parts, meanwhile, plunge into cinema’s past, no longer in homage but instead imagining a new beginning divorced entirely from what came before, as if he were inventing cinema for the first time. Once again, expectation and point of reference gradually recede in La Flor.
To ask, then, if the first segment, “a B-movie of the sort that Americans used to make with their eyes closed but cannot make anymore,” is “good” is to ask a question that is virtually irrelevant. Good or bad, this episode reveals to us a virtuosic filmmaker (as evidenced by the opening shot, which, over several minutes, shows two characters walk through the same lab, one handling questions and concerns with panic of her own while the other calmly solves the problems) trying his hand at genre and pastiche. Llinás attempts it again and again, the results morphing into a radically dissimilar, elaborately plotted cold war thriller in the third episode, an out-and-out remake of a French classic in the fifth, and a silent film for each of the last two. But we don’t see that transformation all at once. It takes nearly four hours just to reach the spy story, and another 10 or so before we can, in retrospect, trace that line, which Llinás never points us to or underlines. Over a shorter duration, it might seem like an intentional effect, a way to walk a viewer through the implications of genre storytelling or simply chart out all the different ways one can tell a story on film. As is, however, it serves the function without suggesting intentionality; Llinás organically discovers it in the process of making La Flor and, because of the duration and chronology of his film, the viewer does too. It is one of any number of things a viewer might happen upon not because of the filmmaker’s careful construction of a film but by his honest depiction of his own process, a Bazinian faith in image and audience in a post-Bazin, deconstructive age.
That said, Llinás—or, in keeping with the film’s attitude toward viewership and authorship, we might simply say La Flor—is not above deconstruction. The fourth story, accounting for about three-and-a-half hours of the total runtime, involves a clear stand-in for the director ostensibly working on a film with a theater troupe much like Llinás’ own, only to abandon them to film trees at every chance he gets. The structure of the film within the film is shown, in the director’s well-kept diary, to resemble a spider—or more accurately, an ant—in the same way La Flor’s resembles a flower. The story’s “four witches,” meanwhile, echo La Flor’s four actresses. Rather than merely engage in self-parody, however, Llinás reconsiders authorship, handing his diary to a character who makes nothing of its trees but a great deal of the books and locations contained therein. His quest to understand leads him to yet another story—that of Casanova—and then to its apocrypha, itself haunted by four women. Extraordinary stories beget Extraordinary Stories, but where that film emphasized mastery, La Flor emphasizes viewership. We are given full access to the director’s thoughts and intentions as he writes in his diary, only to watch a reader fail spectacularly to understand intention. Rather than playing the disconnect for laughs, though, La Flor validates the audience. Whatever clues an author might leave are sure to be missed, it tells us, while unique revelations and “eureka!” moments are applauded rather than dismissed. If La Flor contains a skeleton key, it is certainly this segment, which encourages you to throw away norms, expectations, and authorial intention in favor of following whatever threads one may find in a work of art. With 14 hours to sift through, there are surely plenty. Rarely does a film encourage, let alone reward, a multiplicity of viewer interpretations as La Flor does.
One such thread is elucidated by Llinás in an interview with Cinema Scope. As he says, the fourth episode was a turning point, the moment where words were written to match images rather than the other way around. Where he cites filmmakers (namely Hitchcock and Lang) in the early segments, starting with the fourth he began to pull more heavily from painting, particularly Manet, but also Da Vinci in the final episode and, more broadly, the lighting of 18th century masters for the Casanova scenes in the fourth. It is no surprise, then, that narrative is tossed aside altogether in what may be the two most beautiful moments in the film: images of the actresses wandering in nature that end the fourth, and shots of airplanes in the fifth. “We’re getting older so we have to go back to the masters. It’s the only thing I know,” he says. It took Llinás a long time to arrive there, but that La Flor presents itself in the order in which it was shot allows the viewer to watch that evolution, slowly but surely, just as the director himself undertook it. So then, one last time: what is one to do with a 14-hour film? Watch it, of course.