Thessaloniki International Film Festival review: La Flor (Mariano Llinás)

“Watch out, the world’s behind you”

In a constant state of metamorphosis. This is how I would describe – and attempt to sum up – the nature of a film as vast, labyrinthine, multi-layered and ambitious as Mariano Llinás’ La Flor. Having just returned to Athens after a hectic 10-day stay in Thessaloniki for the 59th edition of the eponymous international film festival, I am still contemplating the boldness and inventiveness of Llinás’ masterpiece.

I had the privilege to watch several noteworthy films during the course of the festival: Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt’s refreshingly nutty and kitschy Diamantino, whose excessive garishness works in its favor and produces a work of profound humanism; Hu Bo’s devastating first (and unfortunately final) film, An Elephant Sitting Still, a raw, angry yet poetic exploration of four lonely souls in the margins of society; Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña’s intelligent and nightmarish The Wolf House, a sharply political and hauntingly existential stop-motion tale; Naomi Kawase’s welcomingly bizarre and deeply personal ghost story, Vision, an ontological and metaphysical filmic discourse on (im)permanence, memory and rebirth; Kirill Serebrennikov’s Summer, a nostalgic, wildly imaginative and loose tale about the Leningrad underground rock culture in the 1980s; and, finally, Federico Veiroj’s observational, subtle and ambiguous character study of a tormented artist, Belmonte. Yet the unquestionable standout of the festival was Llinás’ enigmatic, shapeshifting and revolutionary La Flor.

I have to admit that, despite my great admiration for Llinás’ previous film – the 4-hour epic Historias Extraordinarias (2008) – I was skeptical and wary of the festival buzz surrounding La Flor. What if the awards recognition at the 20th edition of the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema (La Flor won the Best Film and Best Actress prizes), the rapturous raves at the 71st Locarno Film Festival where the film premiered and contended for the Golden Leopard – an example of remarkably bold programming – and its inclusion in the curated lineup of the 56th New York Film Festival were misleading, another case of critical hyperbole?

Indeed, a cynic would say that – at least on paper – the film’s structure and duration feel like gimmicks; La Flor is a six-part, 14-hour film which was in production for almost ten years. It is poised to be (exclusively?) worshipped by the so-called “intellectual” viewer for its structural, exterior elements and ambition regardless of the depth and/or the complexity of its content. Therefore, I am pleased to say that this is far from the self-indulgent work of a narcissist that tests the patience and endurance of the viewer in order to make a “profound” artistic statement. Llinás’s film is neither an exercise in formalism nor a vanity project. One should put aside their concerns about the mammoth running time and its presumed chaotic structure or narrative inconsistencies and delve into the film with an open mind; La Flor is first and foremost a manifestation of artistic freedom and should be experienced as such.

Reminiscent of the glorious fluidity of Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 (1971), Llinás intends to explore the endless possibilities of storytelling, the amorphous and enigmatic nature of the art of acting, and the exhausting, messy process of filmmaking. These descriptions may sound woefully theoretical, but Llinás playfully indulges the pleasures of the various film genres which are incorporated into the film’s six-part structure, and imbues its conceptual complexities with emotional intensity and pathos.

The film’s prologue introduces us to the director himself; we see Llinás pensively drawing a flower-like symbol on a blank page of his notebook. This brilliantly conceived sketch represents the six-part structure of La Flor: four of its petals point upward, an arrow points downwards and all of these five elements are connected by a sixth one, a semi-circle at the flower’s centre. The first four parts of the film – represented by the flower’s petals – have beginnings but no endings; the fifth episode (the semi-circle, the core of the flower’s structure) is a complete story, where the conventional rules of storytelling have been faithfully applied; while the sixth and final part of the film lacks a proper beginning but does have an ending. All episodes are linked by one thread: they are directed and written by the same person (Llinás) and – with the exception of Episode V – revolve around the performances of the same four actresses: Elisa Carricajo, Valeria Correa, Pilar Gamboa and Laura Paredes.

The aforementioned structural elements might come off as laborious or superfluous. Fortunately, Llinás’ subtle approach and great sense of humor never let the film be reduced to a mere cerebral exercise. The film is refreshingly funny, constantly surprising and light on its feet. This is evident during the playful interludes between various chapters of the film’s episodes when Llinás breaks the fourth wall, gazes at the audience silently, addresses it in wry voiceover, and makes fun of the undertaking’s artistic pompousness and daunting running time.

In a constant state of metamorphosis. This is the phrase I used in order to introduce La Flor, one of those extremely rare works of art that is in dialogue with itself and the entire history of cinema, allowing the viewers to broaden their horizons and accept its singularities. The film is chameleonic, constantly evolving and transforming itself into something entirely different and fresh in each subsequent episode. It becomes a living entity: independent, imaginative, uncontrolled and autonomous. Carricajo, Correa, Gamboa and Paredes – founders and members of the Buenos Aires-based theater troupe “Piel de Lava” – passionately devote themselves to the exploration of the blurry liminal space between being (reality) and acting (fiction/performance).

La Flor’s first three episodes are inventive reworkings of various film genres:

Episode I, a reimagining of the American B-movie, tells a horror story about the metaphysical powers of a resurrected mummy. The conceptual preposterousness is further reinforced by far-fetched twists and the use of an exaggerated score. Llinás fully embraces the ridiculousness of the genre without ever succumbing to mockery, snobbery or condescension. His structural and thematic experimentation aims for a postmodernist update of this misunderstood and underappreciated film genre by amplifying the strangeness and unpredictability of the narrative. Llinás’ shallow depth of field enhances the eeriness of the imagery and the disturbing atmosphere; the indistinctness between the exteriorized/expressed (speech/words – actions) and the hidden/esoteric (silence – implied intentions), as well as the disconnect between sound and image push the film into the realm of the mystical. Avoiding the clichés of cheap psychology, the director prioritizes the freedom, fluidity and looseness of the story and, therefore, the release of fiction from any obligatory restrictions to conventional forms of storytelling.

And this is what makes La Flor so special: in spite of the abundance of cinematic references and the integration of elements of pastiche and even (self-)parody, Llinás is not interested in creating an hommage. If anything, the playful rearrangement of each genre’s inherent manipulative contrivances allows him to reinvigorate them and apply them to a contemporary – dare I say post-cinematic? – artistic environment. The end result is an intriguing and ambiguous study on sexism, existential ennui and tradition (primalism, witchcraft and old customs) versus modernism (current values, ignorance of the past, alienation).

Episode II, a riff on the musical genre, with “a touch of mystery” and elements of melodrama, follows the failing relationship of Victoria (Pilar Gamboa in an astoundingly explosive performance) and Ricky (Héctor Diaz), members of the singing duo Siempreverde. The musical aspects of this section are stripped away from the idyllic romanticism, nostalgia and idealism that are typically associated with this particular film genre. The rawness of the interactions as well as the histrionic confrontational style are reminiscent of John Cassavetes’ oeuvre. Melancholy black-and-white flashbacks are scattered throughout the episode punctuating the fogginess of memory and the unreliability (and subjectivity) of our narrators. These sequences offer conflicting versions/interpretations of the same event: the night that inspired the composition of their most popular song. When Victoria and Ricky separately recollect this moment to their personal assistant (Laura Paredes) and new lover (Valeria Correa) respectively, the confessional and lyrical tone transforms the story into something achingly personal. And when the inevitable climactic meeting between the two lovebirds occurs, the song they perform – titled “Yo soy el fuego” (“I am the fire”) – is devastatingly self-referential, summing up all those years of pain and misunderstandings.

A seemingly irrelevant subplot about Victoria’s personal assistant (intriguingly portrayed by Paredes) and her involvement with a cult leader (Elisa Carricajo) who is obsessed with scorpions and the elixir of youth feels like a random distracting narrative detour; gradually, though, its allegorical nature is being subtly underlined by Llinás while also retaining the mysterious and pulpy elements of Episode I.

Episode III is the most adventurous and expansive part of Llinás’ undertaking: a nerve-racking Cold War-era espionage thriller spanning many years and different countries across the globe where four female agents – once again played by the film’s formidable leading actresses – hide from a rival gang of four. Trapped in a protracted waiting game, the four spies prepare themselves for the inevitable showdown. The patient unfolding of the story’s complex intricacies, conspiracies and twists reminds the audience of the finest examples of the spy thriller genre.

Llinás cannot resist toying with disassociative techniques like the purposefully asynchronous dubbing, an indirect reference to low-budget European spy films of the 20th century. Divided into several acts and chapters, the film applies various forms of narrative and structural disorientation; those fragments of time and space are complemented by La Flor’s tremendous sense of continuity and unison. Narrative threads and conceptual dualities found in the film’s earlier episodes reveal themselves to the attentive viewer in a beautifully suggestive and implicit way.

This is unquestionably the most literary part of Llinás’ film. His novelistic sensibilities flourish in unexpectedly poetic ways: the epic scope of the episode’s structure, the richly detailed examination of subtle details regarding the uncertain emotional state of the film’s central female figures – this time narrated not only by Llinás himself but also by an undefined female voice – and their lengthy backstory give way to moments of profound lyricism. An example of this transcendent synergy of image and sound is the kidnapped scientist’s internal monologue which is set against the dying sun: rarely has a marriage of words and imagery been depicted so gracefully on the big screen. While I was watching this magnificent sequence, I felt I was a witness to something indescribably moving, something that had to be experienced in order to be understood and felt.

The gradual deciphering of the four spies’ past teases the audience with endless possibilities. These esoteric, formally austere and deeply sociopolitical chapters are great acting showcases for the four leading performers. The ideological bewilderment and social seclusion of Pilar Gamboa’s mute agent lead to an oneiric narration of the tale of Valeria Correa’s animalistic, primitive character. What follows is the romantic tale of a doomed love affair between Laura Paredes’ agent and a mysterious colleague. The extended flashbacks conclude with an existential character study of Elisa Carricajo’s Russian cipher who is in a state of kinesis and transition, searching for her personal (and national) identity.

How is this episode going to end? Once again Llinás’ approach – and by this point it should come as no surprise to the viewer – denies us a conventional, unambiguous and predictable ending. What interests him is not the outcome – although I must confess that Episode III’s final sequence is a nail-biting cliffhanger – but the process, everything that precedes it.

Episode III is not only the most novelistic but also the most theatrical and operatic part of La Flor. Llinás’ attention to the complexities of performance reminds me of Jacques Rivette. Llinás’ embrace of the fantastical – metaphysical, obscure and apocryphal (the mummy in Episode I, the search for an elixir of youth in Episode II, and the witches in Episode IV) – brings to mind works like Duelle (1976) and Noroît (1976).

The creative chaos, lack of conventional narrative cohesion and artistic fluidity of Llinás’ project – not unlike Out 1 and Celine and Julie Go Boating’s expansiveness and playfulness – lead to a critical dissection of the bare bones of the art of acting: the merging of reality and fiction, the distortion of perception, the false faces/pretense, and the perpetual forging and shedding of identities. This is most evident in Episode III where our gang of four (Carricajo, Correa, Gamboa and Paredes) – another hint of Llinás’ influence by Rivette’s body of work, in this case his eponymous 1989 feature film – navigate the (literal and figurative) landscape surrounding them in order to preserve their identity or discover themselves. Shards of surrealism and absurdism are peppered throughout La Flor, underlining the film’s nondescript, contradictory and inscrutable nature: an impression of (filmed) improvisational theater in contrast to the project’s disciplined constructedness.

Mariano Llinás’ omnipresence – his dry voiceover and self-reflexive interludes – is certainly amusing but also necessary; the constant disruption of illusion forces the viewers into a critical and analytical frame of mind. By preventing the audience from trusting or taking for granted what is happening in the film, Llinás applies the Brechtian distancing effect (alienation effect, “Verfremdungseffekt”). His playful interruptions of the narrative draw attention to the filmmaking process itself and highlight our awareness of the inherent artificiality of the fictional work that we are experiencing. The Brechtian techniques, ellipses and fragmented narrative allow the audience to know in advance how certain subplots will be developed. This form of a priori anticipation proves to be quite misleading given the incomplete and open-ended structure of La Flor’s episodes. The film’s nonlinear achronological structure, along with its several narrative detours, could certainly be interpreted as an expression of the aforementioned alienation effect, but they somehow manage to subvert it.

In Episode III, the viewer cannot unfurl the enigmatic personalities of its four female spies. Little by little, though, the historical and psychological context becomes richer, more complex and ultimately rewarding. It is a delicate balance and a form of coexistence between formalism and pure unabashed emotions: the economy of narrative, its metatextuality and laconic expository tools are complemented by the clarity of the women’s epiphanies and personal journeys.

If the first three episodes of La Flor’s six-part structure are committed to the aesthetic and formalistic particularities of specific film genres (American B-movies; melodrama; musical; spy thriller) by revamping their contrivances, Episode IV is something that – in one of those countless moments of Llinás’ hilariously dry voiceover – cannot be accurately defined and explained. This is the loosest, most unrefined and self-referential part of the film, exploring the relationship between the artist and the muse(s).

While shooting a massive filmic undertaking titled “The Spider” for six years, a director – obviously Llinás’ stand-in – becomes fed up with the irrational and manipulative behaviour of his four female protagonists (portrayed by Carricajo, Correa, Gamboa and Paredes). He decides to abandon the planned filming and focuses on creating something freer, less concrete; the director starts filming pillow shots of trees obsessively. What starts as a scathingly funny parody – not only of Llinás himself but of any artist’s fears, perfectionism, artistic indecisiveness, lack of discipline and tyrannical behaviour towards their cast and crew – turns into a postmodernist commentary on the medium of film itself. Episode IV openly reflects upon mimesis and reproduction, analogy and allegory: it develops a filmic language that is fully aware of itself, referring to its own artificial fictional status and dissecting the entire process of filmmaking.

The self-reflexivity of Episode IV’s first half progressively integrates elements of a mystery story. A series of bizarre events occurs: the sudden vanishing of the film director and his crew; the discovery of the auteur’s notebook by a curious academic; a complex investigation that leads to Giacomo Casanova’s memoir, “Histoire de ma vie”, that focuses on his infatuation with four women (also portrayed by the film’s main actresses) who hexed, teased and eventually refused his advances. These subplots (Casanova’s treatment of the female sex, the director’s narcissism, the depiction of the actresses as witches) highlight the sexism, marginalization and prejudice towards women over the centuries.

The film’s feminist thread finds its most poetic manifestation in the episode’s final sequence: Carricajo, Correa, Gamboa and Paredes are filmed wandering in the countryside, shedding the illusion of “acting”. This adds an even more explicit and critical metafictional layer to the film: we are actually watching the performers themselves, allowing us to catch a glimpse of the individuals behind the characters. But where does illusion truly end? Is this La Flor’s only nonfictional moment? Or is it inevitably filtered through fiction? In any case, this is one of the most beautifully melancholy film sequences in recent memory: diegesis is being postponed; the performers are given the chance to deconstruct and reassemble not just the narrative but also the cinematic medium itself. There is a beautiful line in this episode, that the concept of landscapes bears no meaning without the inclusion and presence of humans, and it perfectly encapsulates Llinás’ deeply moving humanism.

Episode V – La Flor’s only section where the four leading actresses are absent – is a mostly silent black-and-white reworking of Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country (1936). This is the only allegedly “complete” story of the entire undertaking: it does have a beginning and it does have an end. The sight of planes streaking across the sky as well as the playful courtship sequences – which blur the lines between seductiveness, innocence and carnality – are touching in their simplicity. It is quite ironic that Llinás chose this particular Renoir film to update and pay tribute to given its notorious status; A Day in the Country’s filming was never completed due to weather problems. Llinás slyly finds yet another way to expand his sharp metacommentary on the fragility and plasticity of narrative conventions and basic rules of dramatic structure (beginning – middle – end/exposition – rising action – climax – falling action – dénouement).

Finally, Episode VI – my personal favourite – is an enigmatic allegory based on the diary of an Englishwoman who was held captive in 19th century South America. The use of intertitles historically contextualizes the narrative content, although this element remains on the periphery of Llinás’ artistic intentions. What is being explored in Episode VI is the symbolic representation of liberation and its various dimensions (ontological, sociopolitical, bodily – physical and spiritual). Four women (played by our gang of four) who were held captive by Native Americans wander in murky desolate landscapes trying to make sense of their newfound freedom; their aporetic examination of the infinite wasteland that surrounds them, loneliness and existential bewilderment turn into a purely sensory experience, a profound emotional connection with nature, each other and themselves. Enhanced by the use of a camera obscura, the post-impressionist compositions are to die for. The unrefined and gorgeously painterly texture of the imagery – the women’s faces are pixelated, blurry and cryptic – underlines what these female figures stand for: symbols, abstractions.

When the four women bid farewell and head in different directions, the obscure visuals start gaining clarity. In a gorgeous, final topsy-turvy sequence of fluid cinematography, the camera, upside down, is spinning around and eventually reveals the director and the film crew. The illusion of cinema has been shredded; the actresses return to the main set as the rest of the crew members part ways.

This is the end of a decade-long undertaking, the end of a remarkable 14-hour cinematic achievement. Sometime during the film’s opening sequence, Llinás mentions that this is a film by and for his leading actresses. Watching their uncertain and puzzled smiles – is this really it? Is the film truly finished after all those years of shooting? – made me feel a sense of loss; these actresses and the various characters they portrayed had become a part of my life. The cumulative power of the film’s 40-minute (!) end credits is indescribable. I couldn’t control my tears.

So what is Mariano Llinás’ La Flor? It is much more than an experiment in form and storytelling. It is an ode to the art of acting; the artist’s (cinematic) love letter to the muse; a narrative about narratives; a film about films. Most importantly, though, this is an unforgettable emotional experience, an experience for those viewers who are willing to be challenged and moved by an intellectually stimulating work of art. It is the apotheosis of cinema’s possibilities to transform and evolve itself. La Flor miraculously manages to achieve the unthinkable: it reinvents the language of cinema in unexpected and wholly beguiling ways. This is one of the most vital and essential films of the 21st century.