VIFF 2019: Atlantics, The Laundromat, Jeanne, I Was at Home, But…, Beanpole, Pain and Glory

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Atlantics (Mati Diop)

The presence (or absence) of Netflix continues to be a major point of contention at various film festivals—particularly at Cannes, where the stakes are highest, and which the streaming giant skipped for the second year in a row. There’s some irony, then, to the fact that high-profile Cannes titles frequently get picked up by Netflix, as was the case with Grand Prix-winner Atlantics, the debut feature of French actor-director Mati Diop. Although still best known for her role in Claire Denis’s 35 Rhums (2008), Diop has directed a number of short- and medium-length films, so this feature is a culmination, as well as an expansion of her 2009 short Atlantiques. Set in the port city of Dakar in Senegal, where Ada (Mama Sané) is to marry a wealthy businessman named Omar (Babacar Sylla), the film is supernatural sea shanty cinema—though before such associations arise, we are first introduced to the hardy existence of Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), one of many disgruntled construction workers toiling away in the port city. He is in love with Ada, and the affection is mutual. But when the pair plan to meet up for a moonlit tryst, Ada learns that Souleiman has set sail for Europe. Not long after, she learns that the ship he was on sank.

Much of this is intriguing from the jump, and Diop manages to create both an enveloping soundscape (with an electronic score from electronic musician Fatima Al Qadiri) and a potent mood of languor and loss. The story’s supernatural bent suggests a kind of lovers-on-the-run scenario—an image of a burning bed following a wedding celebration briefly brought Badlands (1973) to mind—where the presence of one of the lovers is uncertain, though it eventually transforms into something more I Walked With a Zombie–adjacent. A triumph of Tourneur-esque texture, then, though there’s also a nebulous aspect to the structure that eventually delimits its power: Diop trusts that a viewer will take its arbitrary script details and narrative developments on faith, relying on the admittedly heady mix of moods to do the heavy lifting. But despite some occasional first film issues—the noncommittal closing, ill-considered voiceover—Atlantics nonetheless confirms Diop as a talent to watch. That the film’s most commendable elements will undoubtedly play less well when viewed at home on Netflix is, however, somewhat unfortunate.

The other notable Netflix title at VIFF this year, apart from Noah Baumbach’s commendable East coast–West coast divorce tale Marriage Story, is The Laundromat, director Steven Soderbergh’s second production this year, following High Flying Bird. It is also his worst film since at least Full Frontal (2002), perhaps ever. The film concerns the 2015 Panama Papers leak, which exposed the widespread manipulation of off-shore shell companies, a subject that’s very much in keeping with Soderbergh’s multifaceted, career-long fascination with the ground-level implications of economic policy. Unfortunately, the container he’s chosen this time around is misguided in the extreme. The stylistic comparison that’s come up most frequently is to Adam McKay circa The Big Short (2015), though even that seems rather generous given the script’s shrill condescension and a visual style that merely plays up the artificiality of the entire production, right down to the concluding call-to-arms that sees Meryl Streep removing her brownface getup in front of a studio warehouse, reciting a statement from the Panama Papers whistleblower, and finally using a hairbrush to strike a closing-shot pose as the Statue of Liberty. 

The idea, it seems, is that given the urgency of its topic, only a baldly didactic approach will do. (Along similar lines, Soderbergh’s admission that he himself owns a number of offshore shell accounts, seems meant to disarm by virtue of his candor.) That’s all well and good, in theory, but the intelligence that usually fuels even Soderbergh’s most inelegantly scripted projects seems all but missing here. Only a brief jaunt to China, which uses a foreign businessman (a very suave, tightly suited Matthias Schoenaerts) to relay the events of the Bo Xilai scandal, really looks and moves like a proper Soderbergh movie.

Jeanne, on the other hand, Bruno Dumont’s sequel to 2017’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, is a Bruno Dumont movie through and through. That feature, which confined its “action” to a series of head-banging performances in sandy, windswept exteriors of the French countryside, was a repetitive, grating affair that nonetheless elicited a kind of grudging respect from me for its boundless energy and sheer audacity. Apart from a lyrical honor guard ceremony with sundry drone shots of appealingly choreographed dressage formations, however, Jeanne offers far less to appreciate, distending its director’s interest in cinematic bodies with little variation or discernible purpose. Lise Leplat Prudhomme again stars as Joan of Arc, though here she plays a role far older than her years and as such, has a guilelessness that meshes well with Dumont’s predilection for casting non-actors. But an early shot that observes Prudhomme in full costume, holding a pose for minutes on end—thus capturing every twitch of her face, every gust of wind that throws her off balance—conveys all that there is to the feature, at which point there’s little else to do but count down the remaining 120 or so minutes.

For his direction of actors and interest in certain manifestations of spirituality, Dumont has often been compared to Bresson—a comparison that likewise follows German director Angela Schanelec, not without reason. Although she has often been corralled under the Berlin School designation with fellow Germans Maren Ade, Ulrich Köhler, and Christian Petzold, she has resisted both easy classification and wider recognition—after three decades of work, her tenth feature The Dreamed Path (2016) had the backhanded distinction of being selected for New Directors/New Films. That is, until this year, when her latest feature I Was at Home, But… won the Silver Bear for Best Director at Berlin and was subsequently put into the New York Film Festival’s Main Slate. 

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I Was at Home, But… (Angela Schanelec)

Schanelec’s relative obscurity is no mystery. She assembles her films in a way that tend to make audiences rather angry, if the copious walkouts at the VIFF screening of Home, not to mention reports from various festival Q&As, are any indication. Although her films initially seem to operate along clear narrative lines, they resist the payoff and satisfaction that viewers conditioned by both Hollywood and art cinema conventions might come to expect. Films like Marseille (2004) and The Dreamed Path have ellipses that open their ostensible stories up in truly discombobulating ways; the lingering emotional vapors of any given passage or section are eventually sucked into yawning voids. In that regard, I Was at Home, But… is something of a lateral shift—it’s recognizably Schanelec’s work, but whereas previous films were frustratingly/thrillingly irresolvable and somewhat cold/clinical, this is more easily assembled into a coherent narrative and also more emotionally direct. Her découpage here is less Bressonian than in previous films, though her images have an astonishingly limpid, expressive quality that serves the story’s emotional clarity. Two scenes in particular demonstrate contrasting aspects of her method: The first is a lilting sequence set to an M. Ward cover of Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” which moves from a cemetery at twilight to the blinding white of a hospital room; the second is a lengthy one-take scene of the lead character monologuing to (and then eventually berating) a film director, which plays both as a structural and stylistic break from the rest of the film (not to mention an amusing variation of what we usually see in Hong), and as a gesture of goodwill to the audience, offering explicit discussion on ideas that Schanelec herself has engages with.

No self-reflexive touches can be found in Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole, an unfortunate blend of preposterous narrative contrivance, stringently opaque characterizations, and aggressively portentous staging. A multiple prize-winner in the Cannes Un Certain Regard sidebar, the film is Balagov’s sophomore feature, and while it represents an undoubted leap in visual control, the meticulously art-directed polish—color-coded costuming, burnished cinematography, and exactingly decrepit recreation of 1945 Leningrad—it also clarifies the unfortunate sensationalist aspects of his debut feature Closeness (2017). It is yet too soon to write off the 28-year-old director, who may yet deliver a film to match his ample technical facility. The breathless encomiums that essentially conflate “virtuosic direction” with “well-photographed images, held long,” however, are long past their sell-by date.

Also rather tired: the polished art-cinema genre outing, here exemplified by Austrian director Jessica Hausner’s Cannes competition entrant Little Joe. The elevator-pitch concept is Little Shop of Horrors by way of Body Snatchers—which is a pretty compelling premise. But Hausner’s handling obviates the potential ambiguities that arise. The unusual, atonal score and mannered camera movements hold interest initially, but once the canine subplot emerges, it’s clear exactly where this film is going, both narratively and thematically: the subplot with the son, plus a number of therapist scenes, are used to draw out the mother-child anxieties; the absent father becomes a synecdoche for the natural world (he lives outside the city in a kind of symbiotic take-only-what-you-need manner with his surroundings), whereas the mother works with genetically modified plants, and only orders take-out because she can’t cook. Even the interactions with all the co-workers are bizarrely conventional, bordering on outright inept. Hausner’s mannered direction in Amour Fou (2014) had a coherence and integrity about it; here the actors seem rather left to their own devices. It’s the kind of film that’s so meticulously put together that everything—formal strategy, performance style, thematic coherence—clicks into place immediately, after which it just becomes a matter of waiting for it to crumble to pieces. A shame, given that the pleasures of its sci-fi antecedents lie at least in part in their malleability.

Finally, there’s Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory, which centers on an aging, ailing director named Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), who’s in an extended state of creative paralysis. In some sense, the film requires that a viewer already be somewhat invested in the Spanish director’s career, and know at least something of his extended artistic collaboration with Banderas, which dates to the 1980s, when he starred in such films as Labyrinth of Passion (1982) and the superb Law of Desire (1987). But even without that knowledge, three scenes stand out: an early, near-abstract montage of bodily illustrations and medical diagrams; a nighttime visit from an old lover, which deploys its sense of longing like a depth charge; and the erotic memory-cum-restaging of the artist’s first stirrings of carnal desire. It’s certainly Almodóvar’s prerogative to make a film about his creative paralysis instead of the inspiration that finally emerged out of it, but the interspersed material from the latter is just far more appealing than any of the present-day material, which is comprised of three not-quite-Christmas Carol-esque visitations from past figures from his life. (An episode with a bathing bricklayer suggests that Almodóvar could do well with a full-blown memory piece à la Terence Davies’s The Long Day Closes.) There’s more than a touch of complacency here, with Almodóvar trusting that personality and/or familiarity will supply the much-needed gestalt to a fairly lackadaisical film. Still, intermittent pleasure is better than no pleasure at all.

VIFF 2019: Amanda (Mikhaël Hers)

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Within a film festival circuit increasingly torn between the poles of bombastic monumentality and tasteful subtlety, Mikhaël Hers’s Amanda might present something of a odd proposition. Evincing hushed directorial observation and bearing sundry half-toned developments, the film would seem to fall squarely in the latter category. But just when a viewer might think they have it pegged down, it shifts unexpectedly towards the lines of a straightforward tearjerker. And yet Hers still demonstrates a commitment to deflecting emotional cliché, the film’s moment-to-moment movements (not to mention its overall shape) frequently recalling Mia Hansen-Løve’s Father of My Children (2009), a Parisian drama that likewise serves up a whirl of frenetic activity, before arresting that motion with an abrupt traumatic turn. It’s a testament to Hers’s film that such assessments feel incomplete.

Amanda’s central figure is David (Vincent Lacoste), a sweet, if unremarkable twenty-something who holds a number of odd jobs—though mainly, he manages an apartment complex for a Parisian property magnate. When first introduced, he’s already missed an appointment to pick up his seven-year-old niece Amanda (Isaure Multrier) from school, which he’s later berated for by his elder sister Sandrine (Ophélia Kolb), the girl’s loving, harried single mom. The two are the only family he sees regularly, his father having passed away, and his mother having left for her native London when he was a child. Indeed, apart from Lena (Stacy Martin), a young pianist newly arrived in Paris, with whom he starts a budding romance, the mother-daughter pair seem to be the only people he has any steady attachment to. But it’s not until about thirty minutes in that his feckless behavior has any sort of implications. Up to this point, the film is so languid, so bewilderingly normal that one might wonder what, precisely, it is meant to be. We soon find out.

Characteristically late for a mid-afternoon picnic with his sister and some friends, David arrives to the bloody aftermath of a terrorist attack conveyed in a quick succession of startling cuts, and then a static wide shot that slowly fades to black. A halting interaction with two survivors outside a hospital soon follows, but when we next see David, he’s pacing his sister’s apartment as Amanda slumbers in the back room. When she wakes, he will have to tell her that she no longer has a mother. As to what will happen after, he does not yet know.

In retrospect, it’s clear that Hers has laid the groundwork for this decisive pivot. We learn early on that Sandrine has bought tickets for the three to go to Wimbledon, with the ancillary goal of reconnecting with her and David’s estranged mother, establishing the film’s concerns with parental absence and filial grief. But it’s a mark of Hers’s deceptively casual direction that the involving specifics of the first half-hour don’t at all feel predictive. We might wonder, for a time, why the film is even titled Amanda, but the chaos of the present—its occasional pleasures and near-constant frustrations—pushes such questions from the mind. Only in retrospect do we think of the November 2015 Paris attacks. Only in retrospect are we able to perceive what we have been watching as a mere prologue.

As David’s newfound parental responsibilities become enfolded into a study of coping, Hers observes all manner of intriguing details: the vacation rules of the institution that he considers sending Amanda to; his disposal of Sandrine’s toothbrush, quickly undone when his niece protests; and even his abortive meeting with a journalist looking to write a story on the victims, a scene that’s more astute for being all but detached from the overall story. And though Hers’s camera isn’t quite as nimble as Hansen-Løve’s, he shares her talent for disarming elisions. (A particularly sharp cut takes us from a hesitant kiss between David and Lena at nighttime, to the bleary-eyed morning after, with the latter nowhere in sight, and Amanda now curled up next to her uncle, having evidently been plagued by nightmares that we’ve seen him deal with before.) Much more so than Hansen-Løve, though, Hers demonstrates a willingness to amplify his story’s sentimentality, which means that Amanda might leave a viewer somewhat suspicious at times. But it also manages to locate moments that are all the more potent and astonishing for being so emotionally direct. In that respect, the final scene, set at the Wimbledon game so long in coming, is both instructive and emblematic. As Amanda watches a player being beaten, she becomes distraught out of all proportion to the events on-screen; but then he rallies, and her pure delight is something to behold. A too-simple structural equation of grief and resilience, perhaps—but in the case of a child, does it not cut to the heart of the matter? It takes a certain confidence to tether the emotional crescendo of one’s film to the outcome of a tennis match—and Hers pulls it off beautifully.

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.