Originally published on Ink 19 on July 30th, 2019
directed by Mariano Llinás
starring Laura Paredes, Elisa Carricajo, Pilar Gamboa, and Valeria Correa
Over the next few months, many of us who write about film will dig through our journals from the last ten years to try and create a canon of the cinema that has profoundly impacted us, and in this excavation and reflection process, we will begin to discover recurring themes and concepts brought forth by those filmmakers whose work we have so appreciated. As I personally have begun to dig through the many “best of” lists that I have created since 2010, what I found during this time that has distinguished this era of filmmaking in terms of the redefinition of the form is the melding of documentary and fiction, which has been indicative of this time period when the ability to change the perception of real events through media has never been easier. Many of the films that have topped my lists during these last few years such as Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By The Time It Gets Dark and Gürcan Keltek’s Meteors have come to represent this vital trend in contemporary cinema which reflects the emotional and physical outcomes of the media manipulation of real events. Though this analysis of the medium in addressing its own place in capturing reality is essential to the progression of cinema, such self-examination does raise concerns about the potential loss of drama in storytelling and its ability to engage using known classical structures and to evoke sympathy and/or empathy. But thankfully, a few years prior to the beginning of this decade, Argentinian director, Mariano Llinás began to conceive a massive project of six parts entitled La Flor, which would take the next decade to be completed as it would experiment with nearly all existing conventions of narrative construction in film and all within multiple genres under the aforementioned paradigm of cinematic assessment, contemplation, and reflection.
As with his much heralded 2008 feature, Historias extraordinarias (Extraordinary Stories), a film where Llinás explored different storytelling methods, La Flor furthers his attempts at dissecting the value in established narrative forms, and this epic undertaking begins in a similar fashion to Miguel Gomes’ superb and equally medium examining/expanding 2015 film, Arabian Nights, with our director stating his intentions for what you are about to see directly into the camera. Unlike Gomes, who relies on a structure similar to the one set in place by Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, Llinás draws a graph using primarily single-direction, non-terminating arrows that begin at a central point and all together form the shape of a flower to represent the construction of his six part film and then places us in part one—a campy B-grade mummy film. This segment provides us with our first glimpse at Laura Paredes, Elisa Carricajo, Pilar Gamboa, and Valeria Correa, the four actresses from the Argentine theater who are the emanating center of the flower and who would subsequently work with Llinás over the next ten years, carrying the weight of this undertaking while exhibiting versatility and depth of performance in the many roles that they play. The narrative construction isn’t the only domain of experimentation in La Flor, as the dominant aspects of the characters whom these actresses must portray are sometimes purposefully reversed as we go from segment to segment, as seen in episode two, when Pilar Gamboa, who has just served as a shaman in episode one’s horror film, must now play the talented half of a separated popular songwriting duo, but in episode three, the longest episode of La Flor, clocking in at almost six hours, Gamboa must embody the role of a Cold War era spy who has nary a word of dialog as she was born a mute. For all four of our actresses in La Flor, these dramatic, yet playful shifts in genre, storytelling methods, and cinematic language provide them with a continuous stage to develop and display their abilities in an eclectic way that has never been attempted at this scale.
As episode four begins, Llinás, via a stand-in filmmaker, vents his frustrations, or perhaps the frustrations we as the audience expect/imagine, that emerge when working on a film of such scale as La Flor. Here, we meet a director, dressed almost identically as Llinás, attempting to make some sort of an environmental horror film, which is part of a fictional graph-based film, La Araña. However, this genre-film segment of La Araña backfires when the actresses (Llinás’ essential four) step out of their roles to question the proceedings and ambiguity surrounding the entire film. This embedded breaking of the fourth wall sends Llinás’ proxy comedically fleeing from his cast after six years of working together, and against his actresses’ and much of his production team’s wishes, the director embarks on a wide search for the perfect trees to film, which regrettably ends in frustration and forces him to undergo a reimagining of the drawn schematic for La Araña‘s construction. This documentary-styled meta-exercise becomes a farce that leads Llinás’ stand-in to fervently search the internet and a network of booksellers for ideas, but his search within established literary sources sends the proxy into madness and causes him to vanish, allowing Llinás to pivot the rest of episode four towards Gatto, a paranormal researcher who investigates the filmmaker’s disappearance. In tracing the lost director’s steps, Gatto’s work culminates in a purposefully clumsy adaptation of a lost episode from the life of famed lothario, Giacomo Casanova, which forms a visual acknowledgement of Llinás’ proxy’s demonization of the four dominant actresses who are essential to his work. But, that contempt and La Araña itself are works of fiction (even if some of the sentiments of frustration could have come from the reality of filming La Flor), and Llinás cascades the scenes summating his proxy’s struggles with the actresses into sumptuous, silent portraits of Paredes, Carricajo, Gamboa, and Correa, ending episode four with a loving, almost sentimental homage to the women who are the foundation of La Flor.
After this tribute to his actress quartet, Llinás leaves them behind in episode five in order to address the tradition of the cinematic remake, creating his own silent version of Jean Renoir’s post-war featurette, Partie de campagne (A Day in the Country). In this episode, Llinás repositions the characters’ actions as a comment on the roles that men have constructed for women and themselves in cinematic history. He achieves this by creating a modern outcome for the female characters, forming a different take than Renoir’s film as he reimagines the women as independent of the men with whom they have shared a tryst with, which sets up La Flor perfectly for its final part, an episode that sees a return to the screen for Paredes, Carricajo, Gamboa, and Correa as they become the embodiment of the struggles in the journey of a 1900s rural English teacher, Sarah S. Evans, who was lost in the desert for a decade after escaping her Indian captors. With scenes and quotes taken from accounts in Evans’ journal, in this last episode, we see our actresses’ toward the end of the journey through the harsh desert terrain through the director’s diffused lens, and their triumph in escaping the desert and being able to look toward any future in Evans’ world parallels the world for women in cinema and predicts a future where women can acknowledge their past representations and can move forward by gaining control of their own stories and performances, leaving another episode of La Flor open-ended, but in a way that creates an optimistic vision of what is hopefully to come in the medium as far as new narratives are concerned.
Much will be made of the necessity of La Flor‘s 14-hour running time, but as we approach the end of this decade of filmmaking, the cinematic fictional-storytelling gut check that La Flor provides in its exhaustive review and investigation of language, performance, and perspective is greatly welcomed and is key in re-establishing the importance of fiction and the creation of the imagined. Through the bold performances of Llinás’ four leads that shine through the concentrated and varied storytelling techniques incorporated to analyze all of the elements that consist of filmmaking as an art and a practice, we gain a newfound appreciation for the emotional impact that such performances provide when a narrative is faced with the biases and clichés that are found in traditional film production and when the medium is placed into a meta-examination as is necessary in this time. With La Flor, Llinás has found the balance between the immersiveness of fiction, the awareness of non-fiction, and the enlightenment of self-examination, making his film a perfect culmination of the past decade and a welcoming step towards the next one
Review by Generoso and Lily Fierro