Any discussion of Mariano Llinás’s staggering La Flor is sure to center on its daunting running time of 13 hours and 27 minutes. Llinás himself appears in the opening scene, set at a roadside rest stop, to explain how the film is divided into six episodes with multiple intermissions. The Argentine filmmaker hilariously expresses his thoughts in dry voiceover while he, thickly bearded and looking dog-tired, mostly glares silently into the camera—and this disconnect between sound and image is just the first of the film’s many playfully dissociative techniques. In short, the first four episodes all have beginnings but no endings, the fifth tells a complete story (though it’s interestingly a remake of a classic French film that famously did not finish shooting), and the sixth has no beginning but does have an ending.
Structure aside, La Flor‘s main purpose is as a showcase for four actresses—Laura Paredes, Elisa Carricajo, Pilar Gamboa, and Valeria Correa—who have primarily worked in Argentinean theater. “This film is by and for them,” Llinás notes, though you can sense a shrug in the way he says it, as if he’s trying to temper any bullshit romantic notions of the visionary artist and the muses that inspire him. That’s not to say love is lacking between this particular creator and his creatives, just that the admiration-cum-idolization that the more auteurist-minded among us often like to read into the female-obsessed films of, say, Josef von Sternberg or Alfred Hitchcock isn’t only indulged here, but also knowingly dissected and laid bare by Llinás.
Such meta self-awareness could easily be insufferable, yet Llinás never loses his sense of playfulness and fun. In part this is due to his embrace of disreputable genres and the myriad pleasures they can give. The arc of La Flor‘s first three episodes, in particular, suggests someone continually working and reworking the film of their dreams, adjusting the tone, the approach, the narrative twists and the emotional intensity on the fly.
In the first episode, the actresses play out an abruptly truncated horror story about a resurrected mummy that curses an archaeological site (neither scientist nor pussycat is safe from the supernatural shenanigans). Episode two turns to melodrama with Gamboa as a romantically devastated pop diva who’s still pining, professionally more than personally, for the male singer who fostered her career. The pervasive dread of the mummy film, however, still lingers via a convoluted B plot involving Paredes as the singer’s personal assistant, who gets involved with a Doctor Mabuse-like cult leader (Carricajo) obsessed with scorpion venom and the fountain of youth.
The two narrative strands of the second episode collide in a cliffhanger that then leads, temperamentally, if not narratively, into episode three, a five-and-half-hour spy thriller in which all four women kidnap a scientist and hide from a rival gang of female agents. While awaiting a likely brutal showdown, each of the quartet get a lengthy backstory about how, exactly, they arrived at this point. (Paredes’s section, in which she and a male hitman unwittingly fall in love, is the choicest.) This third episode concludes on a note of sublime irresolution—guns out, ready to blaze—that Quentin Tarantino would envy.
The actresses move effortlessly between their roles, with Gamboa a particular standout, the full-bore verbal intensity she brings to the singer in episode two complemented and complicated by the beguilingly mute killer she plays in episode three. Up to this point, Llinás seems wonderstruck by his performers, throwing all manner of challenges at them—holding our interest over several minutes-long tracking shots and speaking in languages that aren’t their mother tongues—and delighting in how they consistently deliver the goods.
Episode four is where some (intentional) strain begins to show. Here, Paredes, Carricajo, Gamboa, and Correa play nerve-jangling divas who are driving a not-so-thinly veiled Llinás stand-in to gasket-blowing exasperation on the set of a film. He tries to calm himself by filming pillow shots of trees, which takes up a good portion of the episode’s runtime, before the four women are finally revealed as witches (one of them even flies off on a broomstick) who may have once enchanted and hexed the world’s original lothario, Casanova. By the end of this episode, the line between fiction and reality is effectively obliterated, with melancholic images of the four performers—against verdant landscapes, in a moving car, posed dazzlingly in front of the sun—playing like a dual form, on Llinás’ part, of exaltation and purgation.
Appropriate, then, that the actresses don’t appear at all in episode five, a mostly silent black-and-white remake of Jean Renoir’s 1936 film A Day in the Country, in which two city women are romanced by two country men. This section, the only “complete” tale, has the dizzyingly heady feel of the Jorge Luis Borges short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” about a translator who becomes so immersed in the sprawling Cervantes novel that he attempts to “re-create” it line by line in its original language, as if he himself has become Cervantes. As in Borges’s tale, the specter of true authorship arises. Is this mere imitation, or has Llinás in some way become Renoir? And in doing so, has he lost control of his own film? Or is this seemingly unrelated story, in a film already made up of countless disparate elements, a part of some nebulous, near-cosmic cinematic continuum?
The aesthetic and thematic haziness continues into episode six, in which Paredes, Carricajo, Gamboa, and Correa return as wanderers in a desolate wasteland. Intertitles, taken from the diary of an Englishwoman who was held captive by Native Americans, frequently flash on screen, suggesting the quartet have been through hell (a decade-long film shoot, perhaps?). And all the imagery is photographed via a camera obscura, rendering the performers pixelated, as if they were the pointillist subjects in a Georges Seurat painting.
Eventually, everyone parts ways and the visuals gain high-def clarity and flip upside down. Llinás and his crew step forward to offer congratulations, slowly break down this last set, and then literally and figuratively leave the project behind. (The end credits that play out over this topsy-turvy sequence run a full 40 minutes, which, perversely enough, feels shorter than those that concluded Avengers: Infinity War.) All films must end, one supposes, though there’s something about this mutedly grand finale that feels especially larger than life, as if Llinás and his performers have attained profundity by effectively effacing themselves from their own creation.