La Flor (2018)
Written and directed by Mariano Llinás
Produced by Laura Citarella
Cinematography by Agustin Mendilaharzu
Edited by Alejo Moguillansky, Agustin Rolandelli
Music by Gabriel Chwojnik
(13:28:00) Criterion Channel
Any review of a film of this length is bound to be long, but hopefully not as long as the movie. Yet I offer no guarantees.
I’m offering my take on La Flor, which has already been written about widely and possibly extensively. Director Mariano Llinás (as well as his crew and actors) spent ten years on the project. On one level, it’s an anthology film with various genres, yet most anthology films are not made under the eye of a single director. Also I can’t think of another anthology project that includes the same group of actresses playing different roles throughout (or almost throughout, as we’ll get to in a moment) the picture.
But let’s begin at the film’s opening, which features a narration by director Llinás (accompanied by his dog):
Hi. I’ll try to explain what this movie is about. Maybe most of you know this already, but I’ll explain it again just in case. There are six stories. Four of them have a beginning, but not an ending. That is to say, they stop at the middle. They have no ending. Then, there is episode five, which, like a short story, has a beginning and an end. Finally, there is episode six, which begins in the middle and ends the film. The film, this, I’m sure you all know, is titled “La flor.”
What else? Each episode has a genre, so to speak. The first episode could be regarded as a B movie, the kind that Americans used to shoot with their eyes closed, and now just can’t shoot anymore. The second episode is a sort of musical with a touch of mystery. The third episode is a spy movie. The fourth episode is difficult to describe. Not even I, in the moment of making this prologue, have a clear idea. The fifth one is inspired by an old French film. The last one is about some captive women in the 19th century who return from the desert from the Indians after many years.
Now, the punchline of the whole movie lies in the fact that all the episodes star the same four women in different roles: Valeria, Elisa, Laura, and Pilar. I’d say the movie is about them, and, somehow, for them.
Okay. I think that’s about it. For now.
After I watched the film’s 13-plus-hour running time (split into four parts on the Criterion Channel), I viewed the opening again, which not only made more sense upon a second viewing, but also revealed what I believe is essential in understanding the work. Llinás shows the audience his notebook, which will be featured prominently throughout, but focuses specifically on one drawing which literally illustrates the form and function of the film’s episodes.
Llinás tells us that of the six stories, “Four of them have a beginning, but not an ending,” which is depicted in his notebook drawing. “That is to say, they stop at the middle. They have no ending. Then, there is episode five, which… has a beginning and an end… episode six, which begins in the middle and ends this film.” The drawing is quite accurate, and, of course, could be considered a drawing of a flower. So does this mean that the entire story is grounded or “planted” in the fifth and sixth episodes, which are far shorter than any of the previous episodes? They do seem to be the only segments that clearly take place in the past. (Although another episode is set in the ‘80s, it didn’t really strike me as taking place during that decade.)
One of the first things I noticed about the segments is how often Llinás shows us images and people out of focus, often approaching the camera from a distance. (At first I thought my internet feed was slow, but it wasn’t.) The film’s final episode uses a different technique, not of unfocused, but rather heavily filtered shots, like looking at turn-of-the-century photographs.
Of more consequence, scenes take their time in starting and linger after the scene is obviously finished. This technique can often scream “Art film!” to audiences, but I don’t think that’s necessarily Llinás’s intention here. It seems that part of what he’s trying to do is capture, at least on some level, life as it comes to us, without edits and cuts, but in real time. Obviously he has to include edits and cuts, but when he lingers on scenes and where appear to have significance.
I also came to the conclusion that the music (especially in the early episodes) is frequently manipulative, sometimes to the point of parody: ultra-suspenseful dissonances during the opening horror movie segment, sudden striking chords during the spy movie, and the second “musical” episode, which is almost entirely non-stop music of some sort. At times I felt the music was working too hard, but maybe that’s one of the points Llinás is trying to get across: Our movies don’t have to contain as much music as they frequently do. Perhaps it’s often overdone, and he’s showing us this problem by poking fun at it.
It also quickly becomes clear that Llinás is most interested in redefining cinema, or rather upsetting our comfortable concepts of cinema. He has taken conventional, familiar genres and given us something very unconventional and unfamiliar. Since we know these genres (horror, musical, spy story, etc.), we have certain expectations for each, but within those we also have several possibilities. Take horror. Will this opening be a monster movie, a slasher, a psychological thriller, a supernatural tale, etc.? We think this first episode is going to be a mummy movie, but is it? I found myself asking another question: Could this opening segment stand on its own as a single feature? Could any of them?
In the opening story, someone has delivered a large crate to a remote archaeological site, which presents no big problem to the three female researchers, only a headache for sending it back. No one knows who sent it, but the women discover that inside the crate is an exhumed mummy which may carry a curse. Strange things happen. Another woman (Pilar Gamboa) is brought in to act as something of an exorcist, hired to contain the mummy’s malevolent presence. Again, Llinás is playing with the genre, not only with the type of music that we’ve come to expect from horror movies (especially B movies), but also adding elements of comedy, which in itself is not unusual in such films.
We also witness something we’re not used to seeing: women in charge of a scientific project. This in and of itself is refreshing, but we’re also being treated to a fantastic cast working together in different roles in nearly all of the episodes. The four actresses - Elisa Carricajo, Laura Paredes, Valeria Correa, and Pilar Gamboa - are the primary reasons to watch the film, and they are fantastic throughout.
Another brilliant stroke on the part of Llinás is that, with each episode, he shows us that these women have incredible range and depth. If American audiences aren’t familiar with them, these actresses show that they are not limited to playing only one type of part. Forget about typecasting with La Flor. It has no place here.
Yet like the film, I digress.
The second episode finds Pilar Gamboa as Victoria, who was once part of a wildly popular singing duo called Siempreverde with Ricky (Héctor Díaz). Victoria’s personal assistant Flavia (Laura Paredes) longs to bring the two back together, yet also is working on a bizarre project involving the development of a fountain-of-youth serum made from scorpion venom. This episode involves flashbacks and playing with time in a way that the first episode doesn’t, yet prepares us for the (literally) all-over-the-map style of storytelling in the third episode, the spy story.
Perhaps the convoluted nature of the spy film (which is the longest episode, coming in at nearly six hours) is in keeping with the convoluted way it came together. It took Llinás close to six years to complete the episode, which utilizes scenes in London, Paris, Berlin, Bulgaria, Siberia, and who knows where else. The cast also speak in multiple languages. Any attempt in relaying the plot here would be pointless, other than to note that we get something of an origin story of each of the female spies. I’m not even sure I fully understand the episode myself, yet it is fascinating, even if you can’t quite piece it all together.
The fourth episode begins as a mockumentary of the making of the film with a tyrannical director (played by an actor, not Llinás) growing more and more frustrated with the four actresses. This provides some welcome comic relief, especially after a labyrinthine seven-hour spy episode, and shows the film doesn’t always take itself so seriously. Most importantly, however, the actresses are allowed to show of some wonderful comic chops. In frustration, the director and his all-male crew drive around the countryside seeking the perfect shot of a certain variety of tree. We briefly cut to the actresses, whom the director has referred to as “the witches” (perhaps for good reason?), followed by a mystery: the film crew has disappeared. Next comes an investigation covering where the men went and an examination of the director’s notebook and the books he kept nearby. The question “Why was the director fascinated with the Italian adventurer Giacomo Casanova?” leads to an unusual but brilliant rabbit trail.
The fifth episode has its roots a particular film rather than a genre. A remake of Jean Renoir’s classic A Day in the Country (1936) gives us a silent segment as well as our only black-and-white feature. Interestingly, none of the four actresses are present in this section. It is also the only episode with a complete ending, which is ironic since Renoir’s original is an incomplete film. As to the absence of the four actresses in this episode, I have no idea, except perhaps to increase the impact of their return in the closing episode.
The final segment can come across as anti-climactic, a head-scratcher, or both. An adaptation of a 1900 memoir by Sarah S. Evans (which seems to be a non-existing work), chronicling the aftermath of four women's escape from captivity from Native Americans, the episode contains title cards with no spoken dialogue or narration. I’m not sure whether the visual effect was achieved by filters or Photoshop-like elements, but it is effective and unnerving.
The 40-minute closing credit sequence features a long shot taken from an upside down camera, as if one of the crew took the camera down without realizing it was still running. Make of that what you will.
So what is this 13-hour movie trying to achieve? Perhaps what Llinás is primarily doing is redefining storytelling. The long form is familiar to Llinás. In 2008, he directed and starred in the 245-minute three-act film Extraordinary Stories, which followed the narratives of three men. I plan to watch it.
I’m not very familiar with Argentina’s method of film production, but I imagine that with La Flor, Llinás is at least showing that making a film outside “the system” is not only possible, but preferable. Challenging audience expectations can be admirable, even enjoyable, but is it profitable? How lucrative is a 13-hour movie? Can you sell it? Market it? Perhaps now, in our current climate of streaming and binge-watching, a film like La Flor will find its audience. Thirteen hours is a lot of time to ask of your audience, but I’m convinced that audience is out there. And as to the size of that audience, who knows?
At one point in the film, Llinás tells the audience about his four actresses, “This film was made with them, and at some point, is about them.” Maybe the film is about the four women’s journeys as actors, developing their craft individually and as an ensemble. The fact that the film is titled The Flower and not The Flowers should not be ignored. What also should not be ignored is the fact that this ensemble is made up of tremendously talented women who are more than up to the challenges this film provides.
Roger Ebert once said, “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” I’ll leave that for you to dwell on.
If you’ve seen the film, I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you missed it on the Criterion Channel, you can find it on Blu-ray in a four-disc French set without English subtitles, or a three-disc German set with English subtitles. Let’s hope that Criterion delivers an edition of the film soon.