About endlessness: La Flor (2018)

What better way to while away a pandemic-caused lockdown than by watching something really, really long? Isn’t that exactly what makes Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Disney+ and their like such an attractive proposition these days? Most of us have to stay home more or less all the time, so having things to keep us busy – books, films, TV series – is a lifesaver. The longer, the better, right? We don’t want to be done barely a week after we’ve started!

So a fourteen-hour film should be just what the doctor ordered, wouldn’t you say?

La Flor is exactly that. The Argentinian film written and directed by Mariano Llinás is 808 minutes long, excluding old-school intermissions with music. Wikipedia informs us helpfully that “it is the longest film in the history of Argentine cinema”. Even on the site’s page dedicated to the longest films, it comes third on the list of the longest cinematic films, even if there are experimental films that would laugh at anything that’s not even a day in length. Simply put, to say that La Flor is long is something of an understatement.

What is La Flor about, though? Well, that’s where it gets more difficult. The film starts with its director telling us, in voiceover, what we’re about to watch: six individual stories, four of which have a beginning but no ending, one that has neither a beginning nor an ending, and one that only has an ending. Each of the stories belongs to a different genre: we get a B movie of the kind that, as Llinás muses, the Americans used to be able to make in their sleep, about a cursed Inca mummy. This is followed by a melodrama about popular singers and a nefarious shadowy organisation trying to obtain eternal youth by means of, yes, scorpion toxin, and no, that episode isn’t even the most outlandish. The third episode tells the story of a quartet of female spies trying to evade a death squad made up four entirely different female spies, while in the fourth story the director of an episodic film starring four women (there’s that number again!) vanishes. Witchcraft may be involved. As you may have gathered, La Flor gets explicitly metafictional in its fourth part, but the themes of storytelling, filmmaking and genre run throughout the film like a bunch of frayed, tangled red threads. Episode five is a black and white, mostly silent remake of Jean Renoir’s 1936 A Day in the Country, and the sixth, final and briefest episode is based on the diary of an Englishwoman in the nineteenth century who’d been held captive by American natives and was now returning home with three other women, having survived the ordeal. If you thought that this was it, you’re wrong, though: there are still forty minutes of end credits, as we watch the cast and crew clear up and clear out. Curtains. Fin.

Elisa Carricajo (Marcela/Isabela)

La Flor isn’t afraid to be obnoxious and grating. It doesn’t shy away from being frustrating. While the first two episodes play on genres that are generally big, colourful and overblown – killer mummies, clandestine organisations, murder, mayhem, shouting matches and passionate duets – they often feel less like the genre they represent and more like an inventory of tropes and clichés stripped of anything other than their function. We don’t get characters so much as we get building blocks of genre. Everyone is a cipher, every plot development seems to come off a chart. There is a touch of Mad Libs to the film, though lacking the zany energy of the best Mad Libs sessions. Perhaps it’s mostly that I needed to learn the language of La Flor to begin enjoying it, but for the first three or four hours, the film began to come across as a snide comment on what makes genre generic, without showing an understanding of what makes the best examples of genre fiction work, whether in spite or because of the common, easily recognisable patterns. It was the form of genre without the craft of its best proponents.

Episode three, the spy story, constituted a turning point in my experience of La Flor. Possibly it’s in part due to a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, where I realised that I’d be spending another ten, eleven hours with the film so I’d better start enjoying it, but I do think that the third part is where Llinás and his cast and crew relaxed into the project enough to play around with the format. The episode is by far the longest, as we get episodes within the episode, telling the past of each of the four women spies. It is also the first where I started to respond to Llinás’ sense of humour. Altogether, the spy genre may be a better fit for La Flor‘s concept: just as the film strips down genres to their component parts and reassembles them, the spies in the story have identities (or legends, as spy film school has taught me) made up of bits and pieces of other stories and identities. There is always the question of whether we are seeing a spy’s actual identity or just the one they’ve fabricated out of spare parts, and this sense of bricolage fits with the film as a whole.

It is also the episode where La Flor‘s tendency towards silly, even absurdist humour fell into place for me. It’s there in the first two stories: I mean, psychic killer mummies? Eternal youth through scorpion toxin? Llinás definitely embraces the more outlandish kinds of genre fiction, but it’s only once he gets to spies that you get a genuine, energising sense of play, even if episode three makes up for a third of La Flor with its five hour runtime. Within the flashbacks, Llinás varies his generic focus: so it’s spies, but what if it’s also a love story? Or a miniature, homespun Apocalypse Now? La Flor hops from Latin America to Sweden, London and Siberia, and visual jokes creep in that wouldn’t be out of place in a goofy, big-hearted student improv session, as the film starts to resemble the make-believe games kids play with a bunch of random costumes, props and make-up, just writ large. Llinás never aims at realism or credibility, but in episode three he first really embraces the potential that comes with play. Anything can happen next, and there’s a delight in this that I only rarely felt in the previous parts.

The fourth episode immediately reveals itself as a funhouse mirror image of La Flor itself, with an increasingly irascible stand-in for Llinás trying to escape his four leading ladies in a messy, out-of-control film project titled La Araña (The Spider, with one leg for each of the film’s episodes; there’s a cute running joke that Llinás’ alter ego seems to lack a basic grasp of arachnid anatomy). Instead, he and his all-male crew prefer to leave the ‘witches’ (as they call them) behind and go off in search of trees to film almost to the point of obsession. To what extent does part 4 reflect the making of La Flor? Are the director, cast and crew exorcising the frustrations that must have come with a project taking almost a decade to complete and that, in the process, must at times have seemed like folly to them? Whether the episode is based on what happened during the making of La Flor or whether it’s entirely made up (even before the actual witches turn up and put a jinx on the men), it is probably the funniest of the film’s various episodes – at least in its first part, which ends with a dead-pan reveal that made me laugh out loud.

The second part of episode four, on the other hand, is where floristic ennui definitely set in, and this feeling persisted throughout much of the fifth episode as well. The playful, absurdist inventiveness of the film peaks in the third and fourth part, but it’s also that the concept itself reveals its limitations. The fifth part is a remake, in black and white and mostly without any sound or dialogue, of a French short film by Jean Renoir. The four lead actresses don’t appear. What is this episode doing here, towards the tail end of an already long film? Obviously, the question can be asked of any of the six episodes, but there at least we had some organising principle, something like connecting tissue, in the four actresses and in the way genre is played with. Lose these elements and La Flor begins to feel decidedly, entirely, random. It begins to feel like a sad stage performer who doesn’t realise when he’s used up his best material. There is some fun to be had in the comparably short sixth episode due to the plot it tells, however vaguely, of four women emerging from long captivity, years in the desert, and returning to their lives – which by this time must have resonated with the actresses -, and the end credits, while interminable, are an enjoyable final glimpse of the cast and crew, but there is nonetheless a flatness to the ending. Perhaps any 14-hour film can only fizzle out, but for stretches the joke that Llinás plays on his audience is entertaining and inventive. For its last few hours, it feels a bit like someone telling you a dream of epic length, taking that epic length and longer to tell it.

There are moments of wit, absurd humour and beauty throughout La Flor, and spending this much time with the same four women makes you feel by the end that you’ve been through something with them. But you must bring a lot of patience to the endeavour, and even then the film is likely to confound and frustrate you. Even if Llinás starts off by letting you in on much of the joke at the beginning, even if you’ve been warned, you’ll want to find some rhyme or reason in this storytelling odyssey. La Flor won’t deliver on this. It doesn’t provide some grand commentary on genre or narrative. It is fourteen hours of Llinás and friends showing you things he pulled out of a bag. Some of these things are funny, some are intriguing, many are surprising – but randomness cannot keep you constantly surprised. I don’t regret having watched Llinás’ bouquet of oddball flowers, but I am glad that I have watched it.

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