Long Time Coming
by Nick Pinkerton
Dir. Mariano Llinás, Argentina, Grasshopper Film
Writer and director Mariano Llinás, who appears periodically throughout the epic runtime of La Flor, plonked down at an outdoor picnic table, is nothing if not a mindful host. He seems almost apologetic as he announces that he will “try to explain what this movie is about,” making a quick sketch to illustrate the six-episode structure of the movie about to begin, his movie, in a notebook cluttered with dashed illustrations and fragments of writing. “Each episode,” he explains, “has a genre,” and he goes on to enumerate them, as though providing a table of contents: There’s a “musical with a touch of mystery” and a “spy movie” and one “inspired by an old French film,” Renoir’s featurette A Day in the Country (1936). That Llinás is drawing inspiration from an incomplete film, like Renoir’s, is not accidental, for his episodes are designed as fragments: Four beginnings, one story that is as “complete” as a cover version of an unfinished film can be, and one ending without a beginning. As though to offer an element of consistency that might counterbalance the ambitious eclecticism of his approach, Llinás announces that the same four actresses, Elisa Carricajo, Valeria Correa, Pilar Gamboa, and Laura Paredes, will star in every episode. The movie, it is explained, is “by and for” these pale brunettes. The illustration he draws representing the film’s structure looks somewhat like a flower—the source of the film’s title, and the offering of an ardent lover.
The approach and the patient explication is disarming, for on the surface La Flor is not what one would call an inviting film—at least, not to any but that handful of pallid chronic theatergoers for whom a movie with such a saga-worthy runtime constitutes an irresistible challenge. If you know only one thing about La Flor, it’s likely that it is very, very, very long. The six episodes are of unequal length; the third, the longest, runs a whopping 342 minutes. Including five intermissions, which are spread across its three parts, and a 40-minute closing credit sequence, it runs approximately 14-and-a-half hours.
Such a daunting, imposing length; such a casual, welcoming approach: this seeming paradox defines La Flor, which imagines what a popular cinema might look like in a world where the populace don’t have jobs to go to—for make no mistake, to make a 14-and-a-half hour movie is to thumb your nose at society and the cinema as they exist, to show flagrant disregard for potential distributors and festival programmers and harried audiences and yes, poor film critics, who will be paid no more for spending 14-and-a-half hours in the cinema than for two.
While instantly joining the exclusive annals of the mega-movies, titles like Andy Warhol’s Sleep (1963; 5 hours, 20 minutes), Béla Tarr’s Satantango (1994; a shade over seven hours), and Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 (1971; almost 13), La Flor is also a breed apart from its predecessors. To begin with, designed as a one-director anthology film, it picks up and disposes of various narrative threads rather than, as in the above instances, staying with the same plotline or plotlines (or absence of plot) throughout. Secondly, it depends almost not at all on real-time duration to fill itself out—no endless tracking shots following Peter Berling slogging his way down a muddy country road or extensive documentation of Parisian theater class exercises or general sculpting with time here. (In a recent interview, the director appears to disavow “slow cinema,” so-called, criticizing the proliferation of what he calls “a dispassionate form of cinema lacking in intensity.”) A more apt point of comparison might by Miguel Gomes’s 2015 Arabian Nights trilogy, for as in Gomes’s movie, the film crew—albeit here a fictionalized version of the real thing—appear to play an active role in the narrative, and like that work Llinás’s film is teeming with incident, with characters, with dialogue, with focus pulls speaking to intervening directorial decisions and with general buzzing activity.
Even the score is working overtime in the first episode, a “B” horror made under the sign of Val Lewton, shaken by ominous incursions of kettledrum and orchestral shivers courtesy of composer Gabriel Chwojnik. The episode takes place at an isolated archaeological dig site, where three female researchers are terrorized by the malevolent presence of a recently exhumed mummy that seems to have brought a curse into the compound with it. DP Agustín Mendilaharzu is shooting on MiniDV here, and though he will change his camera in future episodes, his basic visual scheme, involving the maintenance of a shallow depth of field and an amplitude of close-ups, will remain largely consistent in the segments to come. (Among other things, this allows Llinás to create a film with blockbuster dimensions on a shoestring, implying scope without explicitly showing it.)
The second episode accustoms one to the film’s cast reshufflings, which will become customary, with roles seemingly chosen to allow the actresses to demonstrate a maximum of range from one section to the next. Gamboa, who appeared in the first as a kind of supremely self-possessed mystic and exorcist, here plays fiery chanteuse Victoria, who lingers in a professional limbo after breaking up with Ricky (Héctor Díaz), the other half of their famous singing duo Siempreverde. (Their album covers, seen in passing, are but one instance of the superb production design throughout.) Paredas, who is a regular in the films of Matías Piñeiro and who we’ve just seen as the most decisive and self-possessed of the research scientists, is now here the personal assistant to Gamboa’s diva who, while her boss is agonizing over the prospect of a reunion with her partner, sets off on a private quest involving a specialized scorpion venom that grants everlasting youth, a mission that places her on a collision course with a kind-of cult leader played with steely resolve by the saucer-eyed Carricajo (a skittish member of the research team in the previous segment), who then goes on to head a team of hired gun commandos in the third. The use of flashbacks in the second episode goes to still greater lengths in the third’s Cold War era–set spy games thriller, in which we see depicted at length the individual backstories of Carricajo and her three team members—guess who?—on the eve of a likely fatal gun battle “Somewhere in South America, Somewhere in the ‘80s.”
This globe-trotting episode incorporates scenes in London, Paris, Berlin, Bulgaria, Siberia, and various other parts unknown—an indication of just how sprawling this shoot actually was, though it tells only part of the story. The history of La Flor goes all the way back to 2005, when Llinás saw his four principals, performing as a troupe called Piel de Lava, appearing together in a production of the play Neblina. After lengthy preliminaries, he would finally begin to shoot with them in 2009, filming each episode of their collaboration sequentially, dedicating nearly six years to completing the third episode in dribs and drabs, as schedules allowed. As in the finished film, the nature of the production, undertaken under the auspices of El Pampero Cine, an independent Argentine collective working outside of the methodologies of the professionally organized industrial filmmaking mechanism, suggests an approach to cinema that has nearly nothing to do with the system as presently constituted.
Any Utopian pretense behind the enterprise is disavowed in the fourth episode, a burlesque of “hybrid” documentary, which begins with the premise that such an endless and all-consuming shoot must result in exhaustion, bad blood, and frayed nerves. A bifurcated episode, it begins with the production of a six-part La Flor-like movie in disarray—the movie is called The Spider, so named because the director, played here by a burly stand-in, as a bearish, brusque, ill-prepared, egomaniacal dolt, seems to be under the impression that spiders have six legs. (This is far from the first indication of the movie’s self-reflexive humor, including some at its own expense—at one point we return from an intermission break to the noise of snoring.) Falling out with his actresses, he postpones their shoot so that he can drive to the countryside to shoot picturesque images of blooming trumpet trees with his all-male crew, in whose company he takes to disdainfully referring to his stars as “the witches.” And he is more right than he knows—the first half of the episode ends with the actresses uniting as a vengeful coven, one even alighting on a broomstick, and with the mysterious disappearance of the film crew, whose Volvo station wagon is discovered empty, discarded, and perched high in a tree.
The second half of the episode takes the form of an investigation into their disappearance by a paranormal researcher, Gatto (Pablo Seijo), who has arrived toprobe this unexplained phenomenon. Poring over the MIA director’s chicken-scratch production journal—the same one that Llinás flips through in his interlude scenes—Gatto begins to suspect strange forces at work, sussing out a connection between the absent filmmaker’s growing obsession with Giacomo Casanova’s autobiography Histoire de ma via and the appearance of a man speaking a somewhat antiquated Italian dialect who, institutionalized at a local asylum, has been freely bedding the female staffers.
The particular episode of Casanova’s life that transfixes both Gatto and his predecessor is a piece of apocrypha involving the great seducer being passed around between four prospective conquests, played, in a Tenebrist period piece dramatization, by Carricajo, Correa, Gamboa, and Paredes. Each wins his heart, and each, in fact members of a misandrist secret society working in concert, teases him with the promise of connubial bliss while ultimately withholding from him release—a parallel to the structure of La Flor, whose first four episodes all consist of build up without climax. The Casanova story is followed by the disarming emotional centerpiece of the film, a sequence comprised of odd images of the actresses on location, sometimes pensive, sometimes posing for the camera, sometimes quite frankly flirting with it, even flashing a bare breast.
This sequence is, among other things, a break from the constant onrush of narrative in La Flor, a film that’s nothing if not a mad proliferation of narratives—in this it is very much of a piece with Llinás’s last feature, the 18-chapter Historias extraordinarias (2008), another super-story suffused by tales within tales. In the second episode, the fabled “first” meeting between Victoria and Ricky, elevated to the stuff of folklore by marketing material, is revisited in flashbacks that offer contradictory information, while a rival of Victoria’s, played by Correa, gives her own family story in a monologue that testifies to her iron will. The third offers the most exhaustive use of voiceover, a torrent of talk divided between male and female narrators, voiceover that doesn’t expedite action or cut corners but instead adds still another layer of information to what’s on-screen. The fourth, which includes an abortive digression that finds two of the women wandering the wilds of Quebec dressed as Canadian Mounties, is in its latter half driven by Gatto’s epistolary narration, a one-sided conversation with a colleague in Washington D.C. Llinás even mucks about with that basic vehicle of storytelling, the spoken word, indulging in queer bits of dubbing and having the actresses perform one episode in French, a language in which none is fluent.
This cataloguing of the modes of narrative is, evidently, one of Llinás’s prime concerns in undertaking this massive cluster of cinema. As with so many filmmakers working in what we might broadly call the art film tradition, he is concerned with the problem of story, still often viewed as though it were a habit to be renewed or got clear of entirely—but Llinás, like Gomes, has taken an additive approach to revivify storytelling; he is interested not in paring down, but in piling on. Another preoccupation, implicit from the rather personal language that Llinás uses in his introduction, comes to the fore in the fourth episode, particularly the Casanova sequence and the unmistakably intimate series of moving portraits that follow. La Flor—the flower—may be the filmmaker’s gift to his actresses, and vice-versa, but it is also an imposition, a means of holding them in captive collaboration, an invitation into a polygynous creative relationship in which Llinás, like Casanova, hopes to enjoy the privileges of the lone man, rooster in the henhouse.
Well before this point, uneasy personal-professional collaborations between men and women have developed as something of a leitmotif in the film: the mysterious chemistry that allows for the studio success of Siempreverde in the second episode; the echo of the director-performer relationship in the third, which introduces the figure of Casterman (Marcelo Pozzi), the melancholic spymaster who determines the movements of Carricajo and her team; the backstory provided Correra’s character in that same episode, a lingering, unconsummated love affair between her and a fellow assassin in the employ of the NATO powers, which quietly develops over the course of a series of missions on which they pose as husband and wife; the backstage drama of the fourth, which elevates the hostility between overwhelmingly male crew and overwhelmingly female cast to the plane of parody. In the sequence that concludes that episode, however, any pretext of fiction is stripped away—the actresses here are no-one but themselves, and the far-from-indifferent gaze of their director is on full display. It is confidential and slightly uncomfortable and beautiful and unflinchingly honest in its longing—an honesty that could only obtain the emotional release that it does by first working its way through a tremendous amount of make-believe.
The two episodes that follow this are the film’s simplest, representative almost of a regression to earlier narrative modes—a return, after so much exhaustive plotting, to the innocence and freshness of rather straightforward stories, told in a plainspoken fashion. The fifth and slightest, the abovementioned remake of A Day in the Country, shot in silent black-and-white video, moves the action to the Argentine countryside, with Renoir’s rowers replaced by a pair of mashers in gaucho garb. It is clear-cut relative to the convolutions that have come before, while the sixth episode is willfully primitive, a string of bleary images of the four women, seen crossing a forbidding landscape, stopping to bathe in a mountain stream together, their journey “narrated” by projector transparency intertitle excerpts from what is cited as a 1900 memoir of an escape from captivity among the Native Americans by one Sarah S. Evans, a publication of which I can find no record. Two of the actresses, Paredes and Correa, are now pregnant—the titles suggest by the same father, a final reference to masculine hoarding of sexual favors, and barbaric droit du seigneur. The means through which these dim, muddied images were produced is revealed as the credits roll. In the last revolving framing, the final shot of a nearly decade-long sequential shoot, the cast embrace with obvious emotion while the crew break down a large black tent-like structure and the camera, still recording, now shows us a world turned upside down. We have been looking at images produced through a camera obscura, at the end of a long and winding road that has taken us to the very prehistory of cinema. The end of the journey is the beginning—and as such, an invitation to start again.