The characters in Extraordinary Stories immerse themselves in hotel rooms, rivers, labyrinths, mysteries—above all, in narratives, whether of their own or others' devising. The craft of storytelling is both the subject and the source of the exquisite pleasures on display in Argentinean director Mariano Llinás's film, which begins by following a trio of characters in alternating plotlines before spinning off in countless directions. To paraphrase Llinás's countryman Julio Cortázar, writing in an explanatory preface to his novel Hopscotch, Extraordinary Stories—a work that does its own share of narrative leapfrogging—is many films, but above all, three.
Llinás's movie is a work that readily invites—and has frequently received—literary comparisons; given its national provenance, mimicking of playfully knotty, slightly fantastic stories, and repeated talk of labyrinths, inevitably these have often been to Borges. But I'm not sure how useful such comparisons ultimately are, given the unique hybrid nature of Llinás's project. Granting primacy to the nearly nonstop voiceover narration over the course of its four hours, which, as much as the accompanying visuals, defines the film's means of storytelling, the movie not only upends the traditional balance of power between sound and image, but combines the two in slippery ways.
Never has a film been so relentlessly narrated, but in telling the "extraordinary" (in both the sense of fantastic and unusually remarkable) stories of three figures known as X, Z, and H, Llinás uses the narration in odd and playful ways. Sometimes the voiceovers merely describe what we're seeing, but sometimes they anticipate the events onscreen ("This is what will happen") and sometimes they provide background. The narrator (actually three different voices which don't necessarily correspond to the three stories) is both capable of reading the characters' thoughts and completely uncertain in details that should come readily to someone of his knowledge. Occasionally flippant (as when he introduces a character only to tell us he's of no importance whatsoever), often reflexive, the narrator is always aware of the limits of knowledge and the contingent nature of storytelling. "This is a possible end for X's story," he tells us, implying there's nothing absolute about narrative, everything could turn out different. Storytelling is a constant series of deliberate choices.
The same goes for life, or at least for characters who view their lives as unfolding narratives. (And then, who doesn't?) X, Z, and H all find themselves in the midst of mysterious, dimly understood pursuits, presented with stories that may or may not be their own creations. X is the film's most obvious constructor-of-narrative/paranoid-loony: After witnessing, and ultimately participating in, a violent altercation, he comes across a briefcase containing a dossier of a criminal investigation and holes himself up for months in a hotel room poring over the facts of the case. When he reads about another mysterious case involving a missing woman in the newspaper, his mind immediately melds the two stories into one, crafting an implausible, but compelling story of his own creation, only for the narrator to tell us in no uncertain terms that he's completely wrong.
But the narration itself—and the film for that matter—is basically a compendium of implausible, but compelling stories of its own creation, whether it's Z's discovery of a treasure map that leads him to an animal-smuggling scheme, a dying lion, and a narrowly escaped death or H's journey down a river in search of monoliths that someone is blowing up just before he reaches them. The characters in the film, who often work for secretive organizations with sinister names like "The Federation" or "The Association," are presented with situations which initially seem inscrutable and then are forced to make their own sense of the events they're faced with. In this sense, they're much like readers—or viewers—of participatory, modernist works (like this one), who are called upon to help shape the narrative. If H is largely a passive "reader" and X a too-active one, then Z is an intermittently obsessive plot-hound, ready one minute to follow every clue he's presented with and the next to fall into a lull of complacency and opt out of the labyrinth altogether. In the narrative arts, there are as many stories as there are reader/viewers.
Eventually, the three tales begin to splinter off. "From this point on," the narrator, reflexive as ever, warns us two-thirds of the way through, "the end begins. The stories become more vague, but also head towards some sort of conclusion." He then reveals more or less what will happen during the remainder of the film and the fact that this in no way spoils our enjoyment of the events as they later unfold proves definitively that it's not what happens, but how it's told that matters. As the narrative fractures, tangential stories begin to emerge: H's travelling companion's childhood war reminiscences, which are cut short by the declaration that H has no interest in hearing them; a tale of a "satanic" architect which reveals itself as the hugely belated intro to X's story; and, most notably, a stunning standalone piece about a missing women, Lola Gallo, and the two men in her life. Set to the strains of an endlessly repeated Spanish-language pop ballad whose continued use renders its banality sublime, this story builds a sense of longing, frustration, and acceptance of the fleeting nature of pleasures out of the barest of means. Throughout the film, Llinás shows that storytelling is as much about withholding as it is revealing and never is that more evident than in the final shattering moments of Lola's tale in which we simultaneously learn nothing about the three characters and all that we ever need to know.