VIFF 2018: La Flor (Mariano Llinás)

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“Years passed, with Sundays as bleak as Mondays. Anatole married Henriette, and one particular Sunday…” It’s with these words—the passage of time and the scale of a human life transmuted into a single title card—that Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country was completed, ten years after its initial filming halted prematurely due to weather conditions. Something of the same shift in scale—from days to years and vice versa—is what writer-director Mariano Llinás achieves with La Flor, a six-episode, 868-minute, decade-long undertaking which, not coincidentally, reworks Renoir’s famously “unfinished” masterpiece in its fifth episode. But while the intervening ten-year limbo of Renoir’s film was filled in with, effectively, the stroke of a pen, Llinás’ evinces countless hours of herculean effort, which has been thus far rewarded with the top prize at BAFICI, a NYFF main slate selection, and no small amount of hushed awe in the cinephile community where its reputation only continues to build. (That there are reportedly only a handful of physical DVD copies floating around for preview purposes seems like a calculated attempt to cultivate a small, but fervent cult of appreciation.)

Such monumental effort is, of course, cause to take note; the only other film this decade even approaching its scale and magnitude is Miguel Gomes’ three-part Arabian Nights trilogy (2015), which at six hours still runs less than half the time of Llinás’ film. But the comparison turns out to be an instructive one, since both are essentially anthology films, with each episode more or less disconnected from the rest, and largely absent of, say, the durational exercises of Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó (1994) and Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 (1971). Indeed, in La Flor’s in-film introduction, which has the director seated at a picnic table with an open notebook of film-related ideas and sketches—not unlike the opening, artistic statement portion of Gomes’ Arabian Nights—Llinás explicitly lays out the overall structure with a graphic: four “petals” pointing upward (stories with beginnings, but no endings), a circle joining them together (a complete story), and then an arrow shooting downwards (a story with no beginning, but an ending). Six extraordinary stories, then, each of which are associated with a specific genre: a B-movie, a musical, a spy movie, one that by Llinás’ admission is difficult to describe, a remake of Renoir’s aforementioned film, and finally a captive story in 19th century South America. The only connections between the six: a single writer-director and the same four lead actresses: Laura Paredes, Elisa Carricajo, Pilar Gamboa, and Valeria Correa.

Pace some early characterizations, though—particularly claims that there’s little to no ironic distance at play within the film—La Flor is not quite a series of adroitly engineered, expertly calibrated embodiments of genre that just happen to have emerged from the same mind. It seems no accident that the first episode is a B-movie (“the kind that Americans used to shoot with their eyes closed and now just can’t shoot anymore”), with its associations of less-is-more ingenuity; nor that the actual plot—mainly centered on a mummy, but which also involves some murderous feline tendencies—obliquely nods to Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942) and thus the low-budget triumphs of RKO Pictures producer Val Lewton. Rather than attempt to slavishly recreate each genre, Llinás thus demonstrates a willingness to impose his own set of limitations on the project, to take what he wants and discard the rest—so while La Flor frequently signals varied genre expectations, it also progresses in multiple contradictory directions at once.

The effect is uncanny, occasionally frustrating, but also uniquely thrilling, since its story possibilities refuses to telescope in the traditional way; there’s always the chance that Llinás hits the restart button and begins anew and so his hand casts a long shadow over the proceedings. In Episode I, he employs an insistent, playfully exaggerated score and an absurdly shallow depth-of-field, which means that much of the frame is shrouded in indistinctness and that shifts in action are often preceded by hilariously conspicuous focus pulls. And the shooting style remains more or less unchanged across the film—which is indicative of budgetary limitations, but also of a willingness to rely on genre-inflected suggestion to fuel narrative, to treat each and every moment of a daunting 14-or-so hours as a kind of pointillist dot in a larger canvas.

If the first episode, while pleasurable in the way it allows viewers to get their bearings, still seemed recognizably in the B-horror realm, the second (“a musical with a touch of mystery”) departs more clearly from its ostensible antecedents and stands as Llinás’ most effective genre reconfiguration. The episode tells of a famous, singing duo Siempreverde, comprised of Victoria (Gamboa) and Ricky (Héctor Díaz), whose failing collaboration is obliquely linked, through Victoria’s personal assistant, to a conspiracy plot to locate a rare scorpion venom (naturally, the key to an elixir of youth). The opening epigraph (“Watch out, the world’s behind you”), from The Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning,” is indicative of Llinás’ intent here, as in the rest of the film—which is to continually expand each given story, to suggest an entire world with a simple change of shot or line of dialogue. Fittingly, there’s an increased attention to basic storytelling pleasures, particularly an oral tradition linked to music. Parceled across the episode are three melancholy, black-and-white sequences that each tell versions of the night Siempreverde’s most famous song “Rain” was composed—how a small tale of understanding (here, between Victoria and Ricky) became lost within deluge of salacious tabloid, fabricated memoir and commercial success—which both gestures to the popular forms that Llinás is working with and captures the inexorable movements of a wider culture of engagement.

The explicit interest in various storytelling modes intensifies in the third and longest episode: a spy movie that finds the four actresses playing agents “somewhere in South America” in the 1980’s (the “time of spies”). Transforming a Cold War era thriller into a very protracted waiting game, the globe-trotting episode proceeds, over roughly six hours, to tell the intentionally involuted backstories of each of the four women, with Gamboa’s mute agent inevitably recalling Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Colin in Rivette’s Out 1. Given that Llinás presents the viewer with his own gang of four—not to mention an opposing gang of four and an impending duel—it’s somewhat tempting to invoke Rivette, particularly given the French New Wave director’s interest in a form of play (theatricality, embedded fictions, false faces) and an approach to performance (a conception of being that flows, first and foremost, from artifice) that La Flor does engage with. And indeed, the nature of the film’s production, which allows the four actresses a number of uncanny transformations and reversals, a constant shedding, melding, and forging of identities across the epic runtime—for which the actresses’ collective theater troupe “Piel de Lava” (or “Lava Skin”) provides a perfect visual metaphor—does seem uniquely conducive to a Rivettian project.

The first two episodes seemed to bear this out, but Episode III, which is split into three acts, provides something of a difficulty in that regard, since for the most part it emphasizes a distance—at times courting parody—in not just genre, but also performance. This is, of course, Llinás’ prerogative. And it must be said that the more outside-in view taken here does make the moments when the episode (at times literally) racks focus that much more breathtaking, such as the end of Act I, with a cosmic reverie set to the dying of the light, prompted by a kidnapped man’s realization that he’s not about to be killed. (Beneath his gag, the man smiles.) That’s merely one of no less than four coups de cinema dispersed across Episode III, which in their wending, digressive verbosity have a quality that recalls the writings of Roberto Bolaño and his ability to cap off meandering peregrinations with epiphanic onrushes of emotion and sudden clarity. Whether one accepts that such moments require the surrounding protraction to function—and I remain unsure on this point—the film’s overall retreat from a more Rivettian embodiment and approach to an actor’s “essence” seems undeniable.

Extending this outward movement, the fourth episode takes on a meta-textual docu-fiction of sorts, which, based on Llinás’ Cinema Scope interview, is his answer to those who have abandoned pure fictive pleasures in favor of “hybridization.” Accordingly, there’s a film director, four actresses, and an ambitious six-part undertaking titled The Spider, though the director stand-in’s corresponding diagram, being six-legged, naturally resembles an ant—industriousness over cleverness, it would seem. When we pick up with the film crew, production has already spanned six years, and the doltish parody of a film director seems more taken with shooting trees than with filming his actresses, whom he frequently describes as witches. In theory, this episode presents a number of productive avenues: for Llinás to acknowledge the limitations of his production, as well as explore the nature his collaboration with his gang of four. And there is a degree to which Llinás does follow through on both. But his lack of facility with the meta-textual trappings renders the former tack deathly dull. There’s none of the reverse-engineered cleverness of, say, Our Beloved Month of August (2008), in which Gomes weaponized his (sound-capture) production limitations into a brisk, inventive tale, so the episode relies mainly on tired meta-humor to make its mark.

In taking on the latter, Llinás at least seems to expend more energy. Owing to the fact that the four actresses are actually witches, the director and his film crew vanish from the story. The director’s shooting diary is later found by an academic named Gatto (Pablo Seijo). The remainder of the episode then proceeds as an investigation, narrated in epistolary form, of the the director’s writings, which later incorporates yet another layer: the director’s fevered search for a number of esoteric books which Gatto takes upon himself to investigate. (That the reading list includes the Polish classic The Saragossa Manuscript, with its delirious, nested mini-narratives, is simply Llinás showing his work.) The text the director becomes obsessed with, though, and the effective fulcrum of Episode IV, is Giacomo Casanova’s memoir Histoire de ma via. But the director’s infatuation, as Gatto observes, is not with the Italian’s infamous conquests, but with “secret fingerprints” and “slight moments of truth”—atomized fragments or seeds that lodge themselves in the mind for later germination. What the director zeroes in on eventually is an apocryphal tale of how Casanova was individually teased and refused by four gorgeous, flighty women (played, of course, by Carricajo, Correa, Gamboa, and Paredes) in what he later discovers to be a vast conspiracy between the four to deny him. The parallels between Casanova’s predicament and the viewer’s are obvious—though lest one miss it, Llinás offers up a layered image of the four actresses, their profiles coming together to form a flower.

What follows, though, is somewhat more unexpected: a strikingly intimate sequence of the four actresses in various locations, comprised of footage one might reasonably (though incorrectly) assume was shot by a partner or spouse. Two of the actresses even bare their breasts for the camera; that we are even watching this seems oddly intrusive. In the film’s introduction, Llinás says that La Flor really belongs to his actresses—which in some sense is true. But the aforementioned sequence gives lie to such unfreighted auteurial benevolence, and serves as the director’s admission of his infatuation, creative or otherwise, with these women. By positioning this (literally) seductive flourish at the close of Episode IV, he seems to ask the viewer if they feel the same. Whatever one’s response, the gesture remains unsettling, as if Llinás were confessing his salacious motives, while also soliciting approval for his candor; even Llinás’ sheepish, apologetic remarks directly following the episode’s end register as a kind of narcissism.

If the concern here is the age-old relationship between artist and muse, then perhaps it’s useful to return to Rivette, specifically his Balzac adaptation La Belle Noiseuse (1991), in which an aging artist attempts, with the inspiration of a new model, to create a masterpiece long since abandoned. (“Ten years ago you stopped searching, you got scared just when you should have gone all the way,” the painter’s wife tells him.) After a lengthy battle between artist and model, the painter succeeds—but the results are so horrific, so cruel to his subject that he conceals the masterpiece and, overnight, produces another painting in its place. He shuttles away the identity he has stolen from his model, and leaves her the final decision: to either return to the essence now locked away or to start anew. In an echo of that gesture, Llinás offers the final two episodes of La Flor, which, taken together, chart a canny reversion to pre-cinematic modes.

There’s the aforementioned remake of A Day in the Country (in which the actresses do not appear at all) and the final episode (in which their faces are barely recognizable). The first proceeds in silent black-and-white, that is, until the romantic coupling occurs, and the soundtrack of Renoir’s film is dropped in to the sight of a plane taking flight, joining another two as they streak across the sky—an achingly beautiful visual-aural flourish that rightly ties cinematic progress to technological invention. The sixth episode follows soon after, telling a silent tale of four captive Native American women via a string of murky, Impressionist images, with intertitles attributed to an apocryphal 1900 memoir by Sarah S. Evans. Laying bare to his cinematic apparatus once more, Llinás reveals the camera obscura used to capture those images, leaves the camera running, and allows the frame to invert itself as the film crew packs up and slowly leaves, their efforts finally completed. As the camera intermittently pans across the landscape in 360-degree revolutions, the credits roll, distilling an entire decade of labor into just 40-or-so minutes. (Here, one thinks of the “Chimera Room” in La Belle Noiseuse, a favorite of the artist’s wife precisely “because it’s useless.”) Even through such an ambitious endeavor as La Flor, the world spins, indifferent. But the scale of human life is such that for the viewer, indifference is not an option.