I am no Casanova
Flavia Dima 29/5/2019


“Beautiful, is it not?” Overlooking the ice-skating ring adjacent to the Stadpark, with its skaters reduced to tiny figures reminiscent of Bruegel the Elder’s paintings (which were, coincidentally, part of a major retrospective at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum), Argentinian director Mariano Llinás (ML) takes a short moment to recollect himself before our interview, before segueing back into his usual attitude – something between a gentle giant (he’s a towering figure, almost two meters tall) and a trickster. The interview room, set at the 9th floor of the impressive Intercontinental Hotel, furbished with chic furniture, is utterly silent – in contrast to the chaotic bustle of Berlinale Palast or the constant hum of a cafés at one smaller festival or another – a setting perfectly fit for delving deep into the artistic process of an auteur that bends time and space, dilating them into oblivion. As we prepare to begin, Llinás asks where I am from – Bucharest – and starts singing the lyrics to The Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife from Svejik in the Second World War, musing on Marianne Faithfull’s rendition of the piece, Kurt Weill and Brecht’s Dreigroschenoper.

Mariano Llinás is the mastermind behind La Flor, a 14-hour long mammoth film that has been all the buzz across arthouse circle, after its premiere in the main competition at this year’s outing of the Locarno Film Festival. Critics and cinephiles alike are divided over the laborious enterprise of actually sitting through the entire thing – some brush it off as an impossible feat, a megalomaniac project that is aimed at maniacs or people with nothing else to do with their time. Others, on the other hand, (of which I have to admit that I am a part of) regard it as a towering masterpiece in the shape of a cinematic pilgrimage, whose hardships pay off in volumes at the end. Conceived over a grueling eight-year-long period, the six-part La Flor borrows its title from the overarching structure created by Llinás around four main actresses, ex-aequo winners of the Best Actress Award at BAFISCI, who form an acting troupe named Piel de Lava (Lava Skin) –  Elisa Carricajo, Valeria Correa, Pilar Gamboa and Laura Paredes (who became the director’s wife sometime during the shooting). Llinás himself stars as a narrator, stranded near what seems to be an abandoned gas station dominated by the image of an empty billboard, scrawling a flower-shaped icon in his red notebook, which defines the structure of the film – four petals that stand for a beginning without an end, a receptacle that symbolizes a middle contained within itself, and a stem that is simply just an ending. La Flor’s half-dozen stories are fit into this mold, starting from B-Movie plots and telenovelas and spy stories to meta-cinematic explorations, homages and non-narrative cinema, while also seemingly working back through time, exploring different cinematic languages, codes and conventions from different era across the 20th century, to what some critics have dubbed “a love letter to cinema itself”.

I brace myself for a meeting that will most probably be the opposite of brief – and by the time Mariano shakes his hand and calls for “No more!”, our entrevue has already been lasting for an hour. An aspect worth mentioning, before we go any further, is that La Flor is currently the longest film in the history of Argentinian cinema and one of the longest fiction films in the history of cinema itself. Beyond its artistic mastery, this fact provides the film with a historic value, in and of itself.

FD: I think the beginning of our interview should be approximately the same as the beginning of the film. How did you arrive at the flower-shaped structure? Was it there from the very start?

ML: It came. It just came, but yeah, it was there at the very beginning. The beginning of everything regarding the picture. You see, I had finished my previous picture, Historias Extraordinarias, and I was at the point where I am now – travelling around to show it, in Vienna, Warsaw, the Canary Islands. And I was thinking: “What to do next?” We all have this fear of what do to after an important moment. But I knew it was supposed to be about the next universe. And I knew it had to do with these four women, that they should be part of the process – I wanted to make pictures with them. I had known them, their work. And, if you can allow me to say this – I had somehow fallen in love with the four, and with each of them, individually.

Now, in Bilbao, we’re doing a kind of a reconstruction, a performance of those previous, initial moments when we started working. We’re reading the emails that we exchanged before starting the work on this picture. One of the emails that they read was quite cruel for me. We tried different structures before deciding for the flower – we tried to do an adaptation over a play they were performing, there were many variants. And, in an email, one of them – which is my wife right now, so she is particularly cruel – she said: “I am not sure he’s interested in doing this picture. I think he just has nothing to do when he’s not shooting Historias Extraordinarias. I think he just wants to be with us. I do not know if he wants to make a picture, but he wants to be with us. I would say he wants to be with the women.” That was a cruel description! And it was probably true.

So, I imagined a structure that could allow me to be with them for a long time, some kind of a 1001 Nights structure, in which I was Scheherazade, and I would invent new stories for keeping them near. So that is it. I wanted to make a picture with them, the four, to shoot them with a camera, to film them, to describe them. Then, the “scheme” came. There’s a Leonard Cohen song [Story of Isaac], which says “a scheme is not a vision”. But in this case, it was – Cohen is wrong, the scheme was a vision. It came like a vision. Four lines pointing upward – maybe, in the beginning, the lines were straighter, but they curved as years went by – which I understood would mean four beginnings. And the last, fifth line, would be pointing downward, an ending. Then the circle came, immediately. At the beginning, they were empty, you see. I did not know what was going to be inside those arrows. But the scheme was more important than the argument. A scheme like a plan, for keeping the four near. Afterwards, I understood that their plan was also to have me near, too. The plan was theirs, not just mine. Like the Casanova thing [in the second part of the Fourth Act of La Flor]. Courting the girls and finding that they are actually using him for some secret purposes. That is my story. I am a tool for their secret purposes. I still do not know what they are, but they succeeded.

FD: After discovering the structure, how did you decide to put the episodes into an order? I developed my own theory on it.

ML: You have one? Tell me!

FD: I feel that you were going from a type of cinema that is very understandable and easy to decode by a large audience, then started to climb up this sort of a mountain, progressively, so it becomes harder to grasp and some people stop watching it, like people stop climbing if it is too much for them.

ML: It is very interesting what you say, but I think it is like in Dante’s Inferno. It is like a mountain, but upside-down, an inverted mountain. Because you go down, going to the core of the cinema. Going back in time, as well. It is not just that we start with the most popular. There is something else that slightly contradicts your theory – that is, in the world we live, the most familiar thing, the thing understood by the most people, is actually the most difficult. I think one of the great challenges of the picture is to begin with silly stories. With genre tropes, mummies, things that could be seen as idiotic. And that happened – many people said “I’ll be here for 14 hours, looking at some mummy shit?” I think that was the most daring part of the picture. I knew that when the part with the Cold War would arrive, all those great texts, those lyrical images, everybody would fall. But the difficult thing was to make them fall for this childlike story, with mummies and cats that attack people. Since we were going to show the picture to a sophisticated, almost snob audience – it is difficult for them to accept mummies. But pictures are filled with mummies, mummies made the story of cinema! We all know that. But cinema has changed into such different horizons, that using a mummy in your plot is almost heretical, you see. I think that is good, because mummies are heretical in themselves – they keep on living amongst the living. I like mummies, the mutated scorpions, even if the sophisticated audience doesn’t.

FD: But why do you think that people ignore these “silly” aspects, like scorpions and mummies, but they fall for the larger historical discussion, the meta-cinematic episodes… why are they more alluring?

ML: I guess cinema has its tricks. I do not know if they are, but there are tricks – you can be sophisticated, snobbish, conceptual (which I think is the worst of all three categories), but scorpions and mummies are still attractive. Maybe they can allow you to recover old joys, which do not have an agenda, you see. B-Movies with monsters, spirits. We all like that. I do not know why they [the sophisticated audience] like it, but I hope they like it for the good reasons.

FD: Another thing I find interesting, beyond the way of conceptualizing order of the episodes, is how did you decide that every specific story is tailored to the shape of the flower? Why was, say, the final storyline, which nods towards western abduction tropes, more proper as being just an ending, than just a beginning?

ML: It is a mix between intuition and observing the evolution of the picture. There were things that I knew, not at the very beginning, but after making the mummy story, I spent the summer watching pictures, resting. I understood some things afterwards. I understood that there should be a remake of Une partie de campagne [dir. Jean Renoir, corresponding to part 5 of La Flor]. I understood that the third part should be a violent one, with guns, and, probably punching scenes – even though I didn’t know about the the cold war part yet. And then I understood that the ending should be them, the four women, coming back from a desert.

You see, what you call western – it is correct, but you should know that this specific subject [female captivity in native camps] is a standard one in Argentinian literature. One of our most famous books from the 19th century is called La Cautiva The Captive. It is quite a big theme in our literature, the conquest. In America, they have battles, like a great regiment of cavalry fighting against the Indians. In a way, John Ford’s Searchers is about that kind of thing, but it is not this one – ladies trapped by the Indians and taken to the desert, but we do. It was like going back into a classic item of Argentine literature.

FD: The last part feels like it explores this sort of pre-cinematic era.

ML: Yes, but I did not know that in the moment I understood the subject. I knew there were four captives from the 19th century, which meant four captives. I decided, no, I understood that the picture should be like a big landscape of the 20th century. The very end should be a glimpse of the 19th century. If the film was a wall, we could just take our heads [gestures with his hands as if he’s climbing over an invisible fence] take a glimpse over the frontier, the territory would be that century.

FD: Is that why you decided to film it using a camera obscura? A reviewer made a wonderfully poetic point about this choice, saying that it feels like a symbolic womb.

ML: Not yet. It was thematic, I understood that the camera obscura should be the way of showing this much later, in the middle of the shooting, six years after I got the idea about the captive. I found a book that later became important to me, Surrealism in cinema by Ado Kyrou. I had been seeing the book in my father’s library for many years and finally I took it. I thought, “Well, this should be about surrealist pictures”, but it was not a story of the surrealism in films, it was a surrealist story of films. A story of cinema in a surrealist view. I started looking at the pictures – claro, he’s considering that surrealism has to do with the camera, the automatism of the camera, of the support, its register.

Then I knew a part of the picture should be fantastic – I consider La Flor to be a fantastic film – but not in the subject, in the way of “taking the images”. We should develop a system of taking the images that should be outside us, we should invent something like that. And the camera is like that, in a way, but we need something that is even more outside of us, onto which we have even less control of the images. The world, hazard, chance would direct the picture more than ourselves, than me and Augustin. Like an old machine that makes most of the decisions. So, we started thinking and we arrived at the camera obscura, which was like a very old, yet very powerful invention. The idea was to let go of our control over images which is a way of primitivism – but we suspected that in the picture, the narrator should be further and further away, less controlling over the story. In the last part of the picture, there is an idea – the narrator vanishes. His red notebook is left on the table, alone. He has disappeared, and the picture begins to be shot by itself. The duel between the girls and the director [in part 4] is lost by him. It is an idea that floats which we wanted to make… not as fictional. This is why we chose it. We also wanted to make a different kind of image, too.

FD: It is interesting. You’re consciously, progressively abandoning language in its textual sense. The initial parts incorporate more dialogues, the plot is revealed broadly by the characters rather than by the agency of the visual language – and by the end, you do not even need words anymore. Part five is mute, part six has intertitles common in silent cinema.

ML: Well, there are words, in a sense – the captive story has many words but written. The mise-en-scene is quite more controlled in the beginning, only to become looser. But we are earning that right, I think. Of course, the part where a pictures approaches painting – which I like very much. At the beginning, you start from finding your own style, but you have a great conscience of what you are drawing. By the end, as you own your artistic means better, you start with vague shapes. I think that is what happened to us. At the end, we just… like Griffon says about Velazquez at the beginning of Pierrot le Fou that by the end he just painted vague colors, clouds, hovering colors. It was a very long picture, so we ended it by going through the abstract.

FD: As you were talking about relinquishing control of the narrative, how did that help you decide when to cut off the stories in the first four parts?

ML: That was intuitive, I knew that. The first had another ending, that was supposed to be a moment in which the shamanic sorceress had this moment with blood coming out of her nose, but we did not do that. The rest, we knew. In the moment, at the peak, we should go to something else. It was a musical sort of idea. I just felt it by “the ear”, by listening – when it grows, it should switch to something else. See, endings… are a problem, in cinematic storytelling. As I said, if you see Hollywood stories, a Hollywood style, it succeeded in many things. They invented a way of telling stories to the world that I admire very much. But they did not succeed that much in finding a good way to tell the endings of stories. Hollywood endings are not, generally, as good as the beginnings, as the heart of the picture. That is why we speak of a Hollywood ending with contempt, “Aaah, it is a Hollywood ending”.

They did not find a good way of ending the pictures, because they lie in the end. They promise hope, violin music, this optimist world, religious… I think they did not find a way to finish the pictures in a powerful way. Of course, there are many exceptions, but generally, the endings are very weak. And if they, who are so talented, fail at their endings, why wouldn’t we? We just decided to cut it when the story was at the peak. Many of the masters did that – they worked with the unfinished. As you can also see in the picture, Manet is a big influence. And Manet, his beauty comes from the unfinished. You see the paintings and it could be thought of as unfinished, but it is perfect. So again, if he succeeded with the unfinished, why not we? It is better like that. There’s this myth about perfection in cinema, how everything must be set at the right place. That is not necessary for beauty. Sometimes beauty comes from the unfinished, the imperfect, the rough. Do not you think so?

FD: Throughout La Flor, you’re not creating a simple pastiche of certain cinematic genres – even though it is a conscious pursuit of certain tropes, you are also working towards deconstructing, subverting elements. Like in the first part – there are slow cinema-kind of devices that are counterintuitive to, say, the original logic of B-Films, which functions using fast editing, and so on.

ML: It is a deconstruction of space, too, yes, I think, there is a will of recovering an older form of cinema. Pictures these days do not construct a cinematic space, they just follow the characters and leave away the unimportant things. The montage is not used to create a cinematic space, or a cinematic time anymore. We wanted to return to that, to create something that exists only in the picture – a space, a geography that only exists there. Yes, I agree with you – it is not something that I do not care about, the homage. We’re not creating an homage to our colleagues, even if they are masters. We’re nobody, we cannot create an homage for anybody. We just study what they do and sometimes we steal their achievements to make ours. We ask, we borrow things from them. Profiting from the fact that they’re dead so that we can do anything (laughs). Mayors and politicians are those that make homages, not us.

FD: Coming back to what you said about the actresses in the beginning – this reciprocal pursuit, and taking into account what you said now, about constructing something that is similar to what Deleuze calls the time-image…

ML: Si, si, the time-crystal…

FD: … at the end of the fourth part you have this montage of scenes with them, after Casanova’s story is over, which I would like to know more about.

ML: What you said has happened to me, in a way. The story of Casanova, the great ladies’ man, spent many, many years trying to conquer these four women and he used all his skills, all his tricks to fascinate them. He was about to succeed all the time, but he did not. At the end, they just went away. He spent all those years trying to get them, but they would always run away. And then, at one point he felt that all these failures were making him grieve, but also happy. He said, “These failures are now my life”. He felt it very intensely, and at the end he felt it was them using him, them who were completely conscious of his work towards them, the women were the one who were doing a big conquest, and he was a simple side character in their big story. He felt released by that, I think.

I am no Casanova, but it was something that happened to me, in a way. I knew that the end of the fourth episode would be the right end of the picture. There should be some kind of a statement to my actress-companions. I felt that I should write a poem to them. And I thought that that poem should be done with a broken heart, with tears. I was afraid of that, because I am no poet. The moment I started looking for these images, when I put all these images together, one after the other… I saw this fragment, these short moments… I saw there was actually no poem. We do not need a poem, because it is already done, it is there. They did the poem. It is them who made that statement. They did not need my words to do that, they did it secretly. They created the net that explained the picture. It was not me who needed to explain it. They just explained it by themselves, in those little moments of beauty, of intimacy. And that was quite a discovery, such as Casanova’s. You are not the master, you just obey. That was nice to see. Their faces, their eyes… they described it without words. We are the ones who have to use phony words to describe things. They described it more clearly than I could. In those scenes, I see freedom, I see joy, I see… spring, I do not know. Things that were so difficult for me to get into the picture, and they just… put it in there. Of course, it is with their bodies – that is what actors do, they describe things with their bodies. There is nothing I had to do, just to obey, to listen, to watch.

FD: For me, the fourth part, with its exploration of the occult languages… it was a means to express that all these phantasmagoric codes and secret languages that men invented had no relationship to reality, whatsoever. It was just a misguided attempt to understand what womanhood is.

ML: Yes, to understand things. It is not me who wants to understand these aspects – I just shot someone trying to understand things. It is not the same, but at the same time it is the same. It is not that we put a character doing something and we share their vision. Or, I am not sure – I am not sure how much the fiction and the narrator share their wills. Of course, it is a good question. Can the narrator of King Kong be considered King Kong, himself? I do not know, probably yes. It is an interesting, nice question.

FD: Well, the trees in part four, those shorts – that is basically documentary cinema.

ML: Yes, but who is the tree? I do not know, it is very complex. Are we talking about ourselves in that part of the picture? I do not have that certainty. And to do it, I must not have it. I must believe that I am just shooting moving objects and people. I can be conscious of that, because if not… why should I shoot something that I know everything about. It is impossible. There is no mystery. You should shoot things that you only just suspect. Suspect that some things can happen, and then shut up. I do not believe in much conscience when I build the objects and the stories.

You see, it is interesting. At the end of the picture, of part 4 – there is a time when the character of the director has an obsession with trees. What happens goes much further than we can tell, things that we do not really understand. He looks at the tree, at his notebook, and he understands something that we cannot fully understand. When the detective comes into the picture, he asks himself what is going on – and I do not know, either. At that point, we decided what to do in the moment – go there, look at the tree, focus on the tree, then to the right, then at the tree again, but I do not know why. We were dealing with something that we did not know, and, to a certain degree, still do not know. And I like not to know. I am afraid of that tree, I am convinced that something terrible, yet interesting happens to it. I like that part [part five] because I become the viewer, the spectator. I like that experiment, more than shooting things we know everything about. That is a disease pictures have nowadays – they are so discussed before they are made and the filmmakers have to describe and answer so many questions that if they do not lie, I do not know how they shoot them. How can you shoot something that you have explained so much? People speak, and speak, and speak…

FD: Is this not something that starts in film school?

ML: In film school, the film labs, the film funds… all that shit makes you explain, all those people who know nothing about images, and the pitch things… everybody goes against the fundamental truth in cinema: you do not know what is going to happen when you turn on the camera. It is quite a relieving, free discipline, because you cannot take decisions that you do not know. I know my craft, you see. I have made pictures, I have been on stage for almost every week in the last twenty years. I have come to know my craft, how to get the images to work the way I want to. But the more I learn, the less I know what will happen when the camera turns on. It is a miracle, the camera takes decisions. I cannot imagine how, but it does, and sometimes, I like the decisions it makes. That is why pictures should be shot – not because we imagine them, but because when we shoot them, it is there that the word contributes. I think we should learn from it. All this culture of explaining, of being sure about things, of certainty… goes against the mystery that supports us all, I think.

FD: I have seen the Viennale retrospective of the late Argentinian filmmaker Jorge Acha. In an interview, he provides his definition of the cinema where he claims: “It is a lie, a dream, a projection. A life that you do not dare to live, so you re-create it.”  I thought I would confront you with this statement to conclude the interview.

ML: A lie? It is good. It is difficult. I have to think for a whole year before answering that question! There are lies, of course but there is also truth. But that we do not dare to live it – no, no, I do not agree with this definition. Who is the you that dares not to live that life? The director? Or the actors in the picture, the cameraman? They are there too! I do not like that kind of authorship, the kind of author that is all “the picture comes from my mind”. I really hate that. The picture is something that… I am evidently a strong director, because I know the picture is not mine. If they are lies, whose lies are they? Who is the liar? Acha? I? The camera? And, on the opposite side – who is telling the truth? I? Acha? The camera? It is more complex, but I know one thing, and that is… cinema has the power of telling lies like no other art, but also has the power of telling the truth like no other art. The point is to know when to lie and when to tell the truth. I think that is what a good filmmaker does. That is all.

Mariano Llinás spoke about his film LA FLOR ©Viennale/Alexander Tuma
LA FLOR (The Flower, Argentina, 2018, 808 min)