It’s become commonplace, if not an outright cliché, for TV showrunners to describe the latest season of their show as “essentially a 13-hour movie” (or however long all of its episodes add up to be). Once in a while, that even becomes true. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 14-part miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz was a major U.S. theatrical event, by arthouse standards, in 1983, selling out numerous screenings despite requiring a formidable five-night commitment from viewers. Likewise, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog, a 10-part anthology series riffing on the Ten Commandments, eventually made the jump from Polish TV to American theaters, inspiring cinephiles to shrug off the as-yet-unstated dictum “Thou Shalt Not Binge.” Perhaps the most memorable recent instance was the ultra-belated theatrical release of Jacques Rivette’s legendary, virtually unseen Out 1 (1971), a 13-hour project that may or may not have been made for French television (there are conflicting accounts), but that never aired in any case. All of these works are now available to watch at home in some form, but anyone who made repeated treks to experience them on the big screen, bonding with fellow obsessives over the course of many hours, will never forget it.
That’s the hardy, adventurous spirit with which one should approach La Flor, one of the longest and strangest and most beguiling/maddening movies ever made. Unlike Alexanderplatz or Dekalog, this mammoth Argentine endeavor—shot over the course of nearly a decade, and running close to 15 hours if you count all of its intermissions—was never intended as TV. Writer-director Mariano Llinás just thinks big and expansive, having previously made a four-hour film called Extraordinary Stories. (Had he not already used that title, it would have fit this picture quite well.) Ten years ago, he embarked on a collaboration with an Argentine theater troupe consisting of four young women: Elisa Carricajo, Valeria Correa, Pilar Gamboa, and Laura Paredes. The idea was to shoot just the beginning of four stories, only the ending of a fifth, and a sixth story that progresses from start to finish in the normal way. Llinás appears on camera at the outset to briefly explain all of this, sketching his film’s odd structure to demonstrate how it sort of resembles a flower—hence, La Flor. Some petals are admittedly prettier or more fragrant than others (and the film has serious stem problems), but there’s forbidding beauty in the sheer ambition itself.
Also, this behemoth is way more goofy fun than you might assume. Its first three episodes, occupying roughly two-thirds of its duration, are straight-up genre fare, playful and mysterious. Episode I clocks in at a breezy 80 minutes and involves a group of scientists who accidentally receive delivery of a mummy, which proves to be no less cursed than your average B-movie bandage clown. This segment was the first to be shot, back in 2009, and looks a little chintzy (Llinás used a mini-DV camera at first), but the shallow focus complements its deliberately ridiculous tone. Actors confidently rattle off heavily technical dialogue even as the mummy’s evil influence results in a trail of mangled stray cats and one team member (Correa) who suddenly can’t stop swigging bottled water; the whole thing is somehow played at once straight and with a wink, culminating in the gloriously belated arrival of a paranormal expert (Gamboa) who locks herself in a room with the possessed scientist, then emerges to casually announce a new plot twist… at which point that story abruptly ends. This recurring coitus interruptus bit generally plays more funny than frustrating—it’s like the “scene missing” tease from the Grindhouse version of Tarantino’s Death Proof—but the mummy episode in particular works so well on its own that you might wish Llinás had just made that.
The next two stories till similar soil at increasingly greater length, giving the four main actors plentiful opportunities to demonstrate their individual and collective range. Episode II runs well over two hours, and initially appears to be about the turbulent relationship between two popular singers who rose to fame as a duo/couple but can no longer stand each other. That story, which involves multiple flashbacks and a subplot about a possible replacement (Correa) for the female star (Gamboa), functions as a genuine tearjerker, culminating in a superb showdown of sorts at a recording studio. (It also features a song so catchy that it’ll get stuck in your head for days.) But we spend an equal amount of time with the star’s personal assistant (Paredes), who’s a member of some bizarre cult seeking to achieve eternal youth via the toxic venom of a rare scorpion species. The two narratives have nothing to do with each other, apart from one (barely) shared character, until they finally, inevitably converge—which means it’s time for episode III! Again, it’s hilarious precisely because it’s such a blatant cheat, though both halves are orchestrated so expertly that either could theoretically have worked as an offbeat film of its own.
(Quick note about how this is being released theatrically, since that’s about to matter. Llinás originally organized it into three parts, and that’s how it’s mostly played the festival circuit since its premiere last summer. But the second and third parts were each about five hours long, and so distributors worldwide have been offered the option to instead show it in four parts of roughly three and a half hours apiece, which is how La Flor is being presented in the U.S. That’s easier on your ass, but the downside is that some episodes are now broken across multiple screenings. In New York City, part one and part two are being released on August 2, followed by part three and part four on August 9; this means some viewers may have to wait a week or more to see the “conclusion,” such as it is, of episode III. Not ideal, but still better than not getting the opportunity to see it in a theater at all.)
Episode III will be the make-or-break segment for many. It’s an espionage thriller, set during the waning days of the Cold War, that’s over five hours long all by its lonesome, occupying the entirety of one part (as reconstituted for U.S. theatrical release; see above note) and a sizable chunk of another. This is where La Flor can start to feel exhausting, in part because Episode III essentially splits off into another four mini-films, recounting each spy’s backstory in detail; it’s as if four Lost episodes from season one had been assembled into one gigantic movie. At the same time, these individual vignettes, which can run up to an hour or so, are among La Flor’s most satisfying and imaginative. “The Assassins” mines real poignancy from the tale of two operatives (Paredes plays the woman) who regularly work together, posing as a couple, and inevitably fall in love, against the strict dictates of their profession—it’s The Americans in miniature, but with all of the confrontations and longing implicit rather than overt. And “The Mole” stars Carricajo as a Soviet handler who recruits a traitor and then spends years on trains trying to track him down, watching her life slowly rumble past her window as the fruitlessness accumulates. Both are perfect short stories in cinematic form, and well worth enduring the slight torpor of episode III’s overarching plot.
Llinás and his actors spent about six years, on and off, shooting that segment all over the world, and it clearly took a toll. By his own admission, he fairly sped through the three remaining episodes (relatively speaking), turning the fourth into meta-commentary about the project’s insanity. The four women appear only briefly in this one, more or less playing themselves opposite a director who’s making an enormous multi-part film called The Spider, based on a sketch very similar to the flower sketch Llinás had presented at the beginning (though this director, who’s played by an actor, apparently thinks that spiders have only six legs). Weary of the troupe, to whom he repeatedly refers as witches (which they in fact turn out to be), he becomes obsessed with finding an excuse to get rid of them, so that he can shoot more footage of trees for his The Happening-ish story. This is highly amusing for about an hour, then gets bogged down in yet another meta-narrative about a researcher who finds the director’s notebook after he mysteriously disappears, plus a film-within-the-film about Casanova. The first three episodes had all been of a piece, structurally if not thematically; Llinás’ decision to lurch in a new direction, many hours in, feels desperate.
At this point, “only” an hour and a half or so (i.e., an ordinary movie) remains. Episode V, for no very good reason, is a dialogue-free, black-and-white remake of Jean Renoir’s masterpiece A Day In The Country, largely devoid of the original’s magic, in which the four women don’t appear at all. (“It’s a bit strange,” Llinás allows, in a second cameo, “but, well, at the time we thought it was interesting.”) They return for La Flor’s final and shortest episode, a mere 20 minutes, which uses a camera obscura to visually distort Llinás’ adaptation of an 18th-century Englishwoman’s memoir about having been abducted by Native Americans. This, too, feels random, unrelated to any previous episode or to the project as a whole, which had started out reasonably coherent but ends up a hodgepodge of disparate ideas that are no longer even linked by the four lead actors. That’s disappointing, but in the same way that a movie like, say, Southland Tales can be disappointing for some people (and not at all for others): If anything, it’s too ambitious, tries to do too much. That’s always preferable to not trying to accomplish much at all. Even La Flor’s closing credit sequence is epic, running some 40 minutes (accompanied by an inverted image of the crew packing up and another catchy song). If you’ve made it that far, you’re apt to sit through the entire thing in a daze. Some image-based narrative works aren’t really movies or television. They’re just events.