From peak TV to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and beyond, we are surely living in an age of serial narrative. A simple, linear story can look as quaint as a VCR or a landline phone. We prefer our plots twisted, nested, networked, layered or otherwise complicated.
“La Flor,” more than 13 hours long, divided into six sections (not counting subchapters, interruptions, a brief prologue and a 40-minute final credits sequences) is both an example of rampant serialism and a commentary on the phenomenon. The film, a labor of love and obsession by the Argentine filmmaker Mariano Llinás, also gestures backward to older cinematic and literary precedents. Fans of Jacques Rivette’s discursive, ontologically mischievous fictions — especially the long and legendary “Out 1” — may detect traces of his influence. There are touches of the playful, philosophical fantasizing of Raúl Ruiz. A touch of Buñuel. Hints of Borges and Bolaño.
There’s a lot to think about. Too much, perhaps, and also maybe not enough. A man we assume is the director shows up at the beginning to provide a brief synopsis of what’s coming up and an explanation of the title, which means flower in Spanish. He diagrams the six parts into a sketch of dubious horticultural accuracy, but it seems to make sense. Later, this fellow will show up, looking increasingly weary, to check on our progress, boost our morale and bid us goodbye.
In the meantime — early in the fourth chapter — a character will show up who looks a bit like him and who happens to be a filmmaker working on a multipart project graphically represented by a spider. Though one of the crew thinks it looks more like an ant.
All of the films within the film — except for the fifth one, and significant parts of the third and the fourth — star the same quartet of women. Their names are Elisa Carricajo, Valeria Correa, Pilar Gamboa and Laura Paredes, and you are likely to miss them when they’re not onscreen. They play scientists, chanteuses, international assassins, 18th-century seductresses and also actresses appearing in the film “The Spider,” which is and is not a parody and a companion piece to “La Flor.”
Are you still with me? Staying with “La Flor”— which is being shown in theaters in four parts, each with at least one intermission — requires effort as well as stamina. The first two chapters, a quasi-horror film about a mummy and a musical melodrama about battling divas and renegade scientists, are compact and satisfying, even though each one ends abruptly in the middle. (That’s not a spoiler. We’re warned about this at the outset).
Chapter three, also inconclusive, is one very long middle, or maybe a clump of middles, like a breadless club sandwich. It’s an espionage thriller of the kind that, according to the director, “the Americans used to make in their sleep.” Maybe so, but Hollywood has always preferred if audiences stayed awake. The tension that the first chapters so deftly built up and manipulated is allowed to dissipate. I don’t think this is an accident, but rather an experiment. What if a story slowed down when we wanted it to speed up? Would we still be interested?
Chapter four adds a metaphysical dimension to the inquiry, inviting us to care (or not) about situations that may only be the figments of fictitious characters’ imaginations. This can be enjoyable as well as exasperating, and part of Llinás’s intention seems to be to explore the boundary between those two states.
“La Flor” is perhaps more fun to think about than to sit through, though there are some exquisitely beautiful sequences. A sort-of remake of Jean Renoir’s “A Day in the Country” is charming (as is the original), and Llinás has an eye for the sublime and austere landscapes of Argentina and the expressive, enigmatic faces of his stars.
In various parts of the movie, they play members of secret societies, cabals and cults, and “La Flor” feels like both the product and the potential object of such esoteric fascination. Centuries from now, you could imagine a collector digging it out of obscurity, dusting it off and setting out to solve its puzzles. That would be a fitting sequel.
Not rated. In Spanish, French, Russian, German, Swedish and English, with subtitles. Running time: 13 hours 28 minutes.