Tucked deep into Mariano Llinás’ monumental 14-hour, 3-part, 6-episode epic La Flor is a montage that only spans a few minutes. Introducing the film’s third and final part atop the stage of Locarno’s L’Altra Sala a few hours prior, Llinás had warned the segment would predate the screening’s second interlude – the announcement part of a habitual routine where the Argentinian would stand before the crowd to remind everyone when to brace for the short-lived bathroom breaks. “There’ll be a second chance, right after a beautiful scene with las cuatros chicas, the four girls.”
The four girls are the terrific members of Piel de Lava, an acting quartet comprising of Elisa Carricajo, Valeria Correa, Pilar Gamboa, and Laura Paredes. They are the only link between the six episodes structuring La Flor – six tales which, as Llinás himself spells out during the film’s preamble, one in several metafictional ruptures, “have nothing to do with each other” other than featuring the four chameleonic stars. “This film was made with them,” Llinás tells the audience in voiceover, “and at some point, is about them.”
Nestled at the end of episode four, the montage doesn’t square with anything it precedes or predates. It feels like a collection of bloopers, takes discarded and patched together following the four actresses as they walk around La Flor’s locations – swamps, hills, fields. A nostalgic tune plays over it: the four laugh, walk, speak to the camera (to Llinás behind it?), look happy. Calling the whole scene beautiful is an understatement. It exudes the magical vibe of a long thought to be lost memory – a short clip forgotten and resurfaced after years – a memento that conjures up a glimpse of enchanting backstage intimacy.
I am starting this review of La Flor from a segment that in the film’s Borgesian labyrinthic narrative would probably go unnoticed, because I think it goes some way toward making sense of that early remark Llinás had made in the prelude, his head bent over a notebook, his hands sketching La Flor’s structure through an intricate series of lines and arrows merging into a skeleton flower. This film is about its four actresses in the sense that it is a testament to how their craft developed through time. And the feeling of awe that transpires from that late montage, the feeling of having watched four artists grow, is indissolubly contingent on the film’s colossal length.
The four Piel de Lava: from left to right, Laura Paredes, Pilar Gamboa, Valeria Correa and Elisa Carricajo.
To be sure, La Flor is not the first time Llinás has tackled large episodic features. In 2008, the Buenos Aires-native directed and starred in Extraordinary Stories, a web of forking paths following three men and different storylines in a 245-minutes, three-act, 18-chapter tale Llinás called “a sort of encyclopedia of adventure fiction.” Conceived in 2008 and completed ten years later, La Flor shares Extraordinary Stories’ ambitious scope and structure, but takes them to a whole new level of resolutely rebellious narrative freedom. Of its six episodes, the first four start but do not finish – or rather, finish in medias res (“they’re four beginnings,” Llinás explains), the fifth is the only to start and end, while the sixth begins into the midst of things, and eventually comes to an end – a conclusion that counterbalances the first four truncated chapters, and brings the whole 14-hour feature to a close. Shown in Locarno in three separate screenings spread across as many consecutive days, La Flor’s part one chronicles the first and second episodes (it is interesting to note Llinás never refers to them as such, but historias, stories, echoing the title of his earlier feature but also underscoring his role as storyteller), the second part follows episode three, and the third ends with episodes four, five and six.
In the first (“the kind of B-movie,” as per Llinás’ introduction, “Americans once were able to make with their eyes closed, and now can’t anymore”) the four Piel de Lava find themselves stuck in all-out bonkers sci-fi drama that borrows from telenovela and horror alike, a multi-genre pastiche where a mummy wreaks havoc inside a lab, plunging the staff and local pets into sudden rabid-like outbursts of rage. It is a triumph of self-conscious madness, skyrocketing to hilarious extents as the episode reaches a climax and the lab researchers (Paredes, Carricaj, and Correa) call upon a “psycho-transfer consultant” (Gamboa) to placate the mummy’s fury. But the ending is castrated: as three-quarters of the group brace for Gamboa to reveal the myth behind mummy’s curse, Llinás cuts to black, with a quote by Nico and the Velvet Underground’s Sunday Morning to introduce episode two (“a sort of musical, with some mystery”).
“Psycho-transfer consultant” Gamboa (left) and the rest of Piel de Lava, starring in La Flor’s episode 1.
The music is courtesy of “Siempreverde,” once a notorious pop duo – made up of Victoria (Gamboa) and her former musical partner-cum-lover Ricky – which fell apart after Ricky left Victoria for her singing rival Andrea (Correa). The mystery comes from a second storyline running parallel to the duo’s feud: as it turns out, Victoria’s assistant Flavia (Paredes) belongs to a secret cult of affluent folks who’re convinced scorpions can be used to distill a lifelong elixir, and recruit scientists to extract their venom and create immortal potions. Structurally more ambitious than episode one, La Flor’s second chapter offers an intricate multi-layered narration à la Rashomon: Victoria’s first encounter with Ricky is told by different narrators, each offering their own – unreliable, partial – version of the liaison. And while the self-conscious and outright ridiculous B-movie vibe that permeated episode one is everywhere in sight here too – from the all-too-cheesy hits of “Siempreverde” to the hilariously comedic exchanges between Flavia and the high echelons of the scorpion club, chaired by Isabela (Carricajo) – the chuckles come with a bitter, more mellow aftertaste. There is palpable suffering in Victoria’s heartbroken, still defiant demeanor – a sense of empathy culminating in Gamboa’s extraordinarily heartfelt performance during the studio recording that closes the second chapter, and put an end to La Flor’s first Locarno screening amid rapturous applause.
Clocking in at 342 minutes (over an hour and a half longer than part one’s whopping 206), La Flor’s second chapter focuses entirely on the feature’s third episode – a multi-chapter thriller where the four Piel de Lava are thrown in a jungle “somewhere in South America, somewhere in the 80s,” as French-speaking spies who abduct a bound-and-gagged scientist, and patiently wait to fight rival secret agents sent to kill them. Building on the structural virtuosity of part one, La Flor’s second chapter works through ellipsis and recurrent temporal jumps, zeroing in on the four Piel de Lava as a group, on each character’s background story, on their four opponents, and on a secret agent working from Brussels to oversee the whole operation, Casterman – a quiet, solitary, trenchcoated man that owes clothes and sleek swagger to Alain Delon’s Jef Costello in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï.
Las Piel de Lava as spies in La Flor’s episode three.
Structurally more intricate, episode three is also formally richer than its predecessors. If by the end of episode two Llinás’ insistence on closeups had become a sort of predictable leitmotiv, faces oftentimes eating up half the screen, the other half kept empty in a symmetrical counterbalance (with the occasional long take to spice things up) the spy thriller ushers in new camera movements, the lens opening up to larger landscapes in 360-degree spins where subjects, far from swallowing up the frame, are often swallowed into it. Fragmented into ten chapters–four of them flashing back to the four Piel de Lava spies’ background stories–the third episode allows Llinás to expand the spectrum of conflicting registers captured in episode two’s rollicking combo of soap-opera-meets-mystery. We span from the farcical (Correa’s background story as a Joan of Arc-meets-Che Guevara guerrilla heroine), the somber (Gamboa as a mute spy in Cold War Berlin/London), the heartbreaking (Paredes and her impossible love story with a fellow undercover agent) and the nightmarish (Carricajo as a Soviet spy traveling across Russia to track down a mole). La Flor’s third chapter peaks when Llinás turns to Paredes and Carricajo’s exploits. Echoing part one, Llinás relies heavily on voiceover: the cast plays in largely silent scenes, with the director’s own voice to guide the audience through them. That so much is conveyed in such few words is a testament to the four actresses’ astonishing talent. Paredes’ frustrated affair with a fellow spy (a relationship that can only be made explicit when the two are required to “play a couple,” and during which the two seldom speak to each other), stands as the most touching segment in La Flor’s 14 hours.
I used the word Borgesian to refer to La Flor’s rhizomatic narrative and encyclopedic scope, but it is only in its second part (and in Carricajo’s desperate struggle to find a mole that jeopardized the whole of the USSR’s secret services) that the adjective truly starts to feel fitting. There’s no mystery around the role Jorge Luis Borges played in Llinás’ project: by the director’s own admission, La Flor belongs to that Rio de la Plata-endemic storytelling tradition that found in the fantastic its anchoring theme, and in the Argentinian intellectual its greatest representative, and was cinematically crystallized in Hugo Santiago’s Invasión (1969), co-written by Santiago and Borges himself. At the center of Invasión is Aquilea: a fictional city victim of a protracted siege that could well go on ad infinitum, and which plays out across an urban landscape of which Santiago gives no clear spatial reference. Modeled upon Buenos Aires, Aquilea is at once a space that feels familiar and yet fictional – a dejà vu of unsettling proportions.
“What La Flor aims to do is to turn into another Aquilea,” Llinás claimed after the film made its way to this year’s BAFICI, “a place replete with endlessly fantastic possibilities.” There is no point trying to reach its center: in an unmistakably Borgesian fashion, the city is a labyrinth, and so is the massive, ever-expanding narrative topography traced in La Flor. Watching Carricajo travel through a country so big to resemble a continent (a place that should look familiar to her, and yet resonates as eerily alien), the angst that congeals in her face mirrors the disorienting feeling that lingers long after La Flor’s second part clocks minute 342. Nine hours into Llinás’s monumental undertaking, its endlessly bifurcating storylines keep running away from any hope of an all-encompassing, unifying finale. What is surprising is not that such an ending may never be reached, but that, the deeper one is willing to follow Llinás, the impossibility comes with a refreshingly liberating feeling.
Las Piel de Lava in La Flor’s sixth and final episode.
“This ushers in a new way to watch films,” Locarno’s artistic director Carlo Chatrian fittingly introduced La Flor. A cinema that plays by its own rules, Llinás’s magnum opus is so detached from conventional storytelling as to create its own language: a vocabulary of ellipsis, flashbacks, flashforwards, and constant metafictional games. Nowhere are these more pronounced than in episode four, which opens La Flor’s third and final part, and follows Llinás (played by a stand-in) as he confronts a mid-feature existential crisis, and abandons the dumbfounded Piel de Lava – playing themselves – to take to the woods. Ostensibly on a “research trip” undertaken to “film some trees,” the journal Llinás’ stand-in keeps while shooting soon reveals the journey to be a means to escape “the four witches” and flee from a toxic artistic collaboration. Except the quartet follows Llinás, and eventually turn into actual witches who begin hunting (and haunting) the director and his all-male crew. In what by now should feel like a Llinás-trademarked fashion, the showdown between cast and crew is frustratingly truncated: flash forward four months later, a researcher named Gatto is sent all the way from Washington to understand why the director’s blue Volvo is stuck atop a tree several meters above the ground. The multiple-narrators game started a few hours prior blows out to jaw-dropping proportions, as Llinás structures episode four as a narrative matryoshka doll, with Gatto recovering the director’s stand-in’s journal, and scavenging for information about the man and his project in another Borges-like impossible quest for knowledge.
Next to such intricate hypertext, La Flor’s remaining two episodes (the fifth a remake of Jean Renoir’s own adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s A Day in the Country, with rowers swapped for Argentinian gauchos, the sixth an adaptation of Sarah S. Evans 1900 memoir of her escape from captivity among Native Americans) may feel somewhat underwhelming, possibly because of their comparatively shorter length, and – in the case of episode five – the fact that La Piel de Lava are nowhere to be found. Even so, calling La Flor’s finale anticlimactic feels like an injustice.
Watching Llinás and crew lift up the big camera obscura-like tent used to shoot episode six, Llinás hugging his cast as the credits roll, I kept returning to that brief montage stuck in between episodes four and five. Among the inspirations behind La Flor Llinás included Rossellini’s Stromboli–more specifically, its ending: that breathtaking moment when Ingrid Bergman, the superstar who by 1950 had already risen to near-divine status with her performances in Casablanca and Notorious, climbs up the volcano. “It was the first time that the earlier career of an actor turned a fictional scene into something else.” La Flor sets out to achieve something similar: to allow the four Piel de Lava to turn fiction into something that transcends it. Except it does not rely on the quartet’s prior work to elicit that feeling – instead, it aims to construct it as the feature unfurls.
By the time Llinás rushes to embrace his muses, a ten-year shooting has come to an end. Paredes and Correa are pregnant. People have grown older, thickened and greyed – and we watched them as they did. In its ambitious temporal scaffolding, La Flor is closer in spirit to Linklater’s Boyhood than the exuberant (but time-compressed) display of acting bravado championed in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. Time, our experience of it, and the ultimate realization that everything in life is fleeting: these are the musings that anchor La Flor, and make it its own thing–at once so eccentrically singular, and so deeply human.
Whether or not it will herald a new way to watch cinema, its audacious narrative does mark a pioneering jump into an uncharted territory. “It’s been a pleasure,” Llinás had said before jumping aboard his blue Volvo and driving away at the onset of episode four. A few hours later, the crew and cast cheer as they pack and abandon the frame, leaving you with the feeling of having witnessed a landmark in filmmaking, but also with that melancholic, lingering question as you watch old-time friends bid you farewell. Where did all that time fly?
La Flor premiered at the 2018 Locarno Film Festival and opens on August 2.