Where to begin? Described by the 71st edition’s artistic director Carlo Chatrian as “a new way to watch films,” Argentine director Mariano Llinás’s latest has been touted as the longest film in the history of the great Locarno Festival. Running an exceptional 14 hours, the first 206 minutes of Llinás’s episodic epic—to be more specific, six stories told in three parts—proved a promising pulp anomaly. So far, so good. La Flor, a celebratory showcase that, in spite of its daunting duration, is not yet ever uneventful, is in no sense slow or contemplative cinema: a form that, by design, might produce the kind of fatigue necessary to find whatever epiphany lies beyond our boredom.
Though its many plots seem to extend into perpetuity, La Flor, variously abbreviated and abridged, instead flourishes with an abandon, following no rules other than its own. Llinás’s prologue begins with two images, both blatant superstructural metaphors—a man-made, metal scaffolding and a tall tree in bloom—before he frames the film’s narrative: outlining the order of his episodes, introducing his four formidable actors (Pilar Gamboa, Elisa Carricajo, Laura Paredes and Valeria Correa) and explicitly instructing his viewer how they may want to watch this film. We are told that, though divided into three parts, La Flor will subvert a typical three-part structure, that there will be no satisfactory sequence of beginning-middle-end. Leafing through a notebook, Llinás lingers on a diagrammatic representation of his project: four arrows that shoot and sprout upwards in phototropism, another that burrows below, and a strange semi-circle that connects the latter to the former.
Though it remains too soon to say, Episode 1 may see Llinás setting out as he means to continue—with metatextual material (a handwritten title card, an epigraph) and the manic storytelling style of a madman. Schlock sci-fi in the style of a telenovela, the film’s preposterous, passionate first episode borrows the sweaty aesthetics of a B-movie to produce pure hysteria: a kitsch monstrosity of film references that stretch into self-consciously silly pastiche. Clad in lab coats, La Flor’s four actors find themselves in the genre of body horror—the kind of melodramatic midnight movie that might throw around near-nonsensical pseudoscience as “symptomatology” and “psycho-transference.” When not shouting over one another, or silenced by the film’s outrageously exaggerated orchestral score, each fall victim to a curse unleashed virally, and inexplicably, by exhumed mummified remains.
Where La Flor’s Episode 1 begins with a quotation from French philosopher René Char, Episode 2 opens with a short, one-line lyric from a different era and different epoch: Nico and the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning.” Combining several styles, and more metafiction with a uniquely interesting degree of inconsistency, the more curious, more intriguing Episode 2 is split down the middle by an ambiguous internal ellipsis—multiplying its plots, and constructing two stories that are are surely interconnected—though it is left for the viewer to decide the amount of reticulate and complex connective tissue it would take to tether plot-A to plot-B.
Firstly, there is the feud between two members of a musical duo “Siempreverde,” and the breakdown of their relationship as conveyed in past-tense black-and-white and performative, maudlin-level melancholy. Secondly, and simultaneously, there is a hardboiled, paranoid spy thriller—a parallel plot that seems to take place in an entirely different world, one populated by very bad men named Frank, femme fatales who only ever meet either cliffside or in empty parking lots (exchanging wordless, withering glances in spite of their sunglasses) and a network of conspirators who gather al fresco to discuss scorpion tattoos and possibility of autonomous cellular regeneration vis a vis venom. Slowly, one story creeps toward the other—though not completely satisfactorily—and the episode culminates in a cliffhanger we know well enough will not be resolved. Part 1—in isolation, a frustrating double feature divided by a dramatic do-over—sets in motion a film of such wild width and breadth that may make its objective analysis inextricable from its sometimes stressful, always subjective viewing experience: held to its pace and holding your face in your hands. To begin to search for something synecdochical might be a mistake, though some irresistible possible motifs—medicinals and metatoxins—may have already emerged. Exceeding and challenging our expectations a decade after his last film, Extraordinary Stories, how these individual, imperfect narratives may or may not relate to the whole of Llinás’s La Flor remains to be seen, and to be continued.