Depending on how you count the intermissions that are baked right into the print - there are five of them, all about 15 minutes in length - La Flor is anywhere from about 13.5 hours long to a bit less than 15 hours long. This is, of course The Big Fact about the film that every review is duty-bound to lead with, in part because it doesn't do, ethically speaking, to get somebody excited about a movie and then admit that they'll need to take the week off of work to watch it. And in part because, let's be fair, having a 13.5-hour film out in the world is cool. (Less cool: it's the kind of thing that's doomed to rare, one-off theatrical screenings, though the good folks at Grasshopper Films are at least planning to release it as a digital download sometime in the spring of 2020, so it won't be as horribly unavailable as some of the other ridiculously long films out there).

So we've gotten that out there. Now let me follow by assuring you that, as 13.5-hour films go, La Flor isn't nearly the epochal slog you might assume. Indeed, among all of the ultra-long films I've seen, this is by far the most watchable. Being unwatchable is, after all, kind of the thing that these showily long movies do. Jacques Rivette's Out 1 (13 hours) has virtually no plot and makes you sit through 90 minutes of actors stretching before it even starts to have enough plot for it to be clear how little there will be. Lav Diaz's Evolution of a Filipino Family (10 hours) is focused on the most microscopic changes in a family and a nation over the course of a generation, moving with a granular slowness that makes the story's 16 years pass by in what feels like real time. Tarr Béla's Sátántangó (7 hour) interrupts its ten-minute cow-watching sessions to watch a cat die for an entire reel. Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz (15 hours), Kobayashi Masaki's The Human Condition (9.5 hours), and Sergei Bondarchuk's War and Peace (7 hours) are all heavy literary adaptations that are solemnly concerned with morality and suffering. Claude Lanzmann's Shoah (9.5 hours) is, y'know. Shoah.

La Flor isn't without its serious touches - it is Art Cinema through and through - but it's also sort of a game that we're playing with director Mariano Llinás. He shows up right at the start to explain his very complicated project, admitting that he knows that we probably already know some of this, because the reason you go to see a 13.5-hour movie is because you're the sort of cinephile who researches these kind of things in advance. Then he sketches out the film's structure as the flower of the title. First, there are four segments that tell genre stories with a beginning, but no ending (the petals). There's a sixth segment that starts in medias res, but does have an ending (the stem). Connecting these is a fifth segment that has both a beginning and ending, but Llinás waits until later to share with us that it's a remake of Jean Renoir's A Day in the Country, a short feature that infamously was left incomplete when the money ran out. The six segments are not connected in any way. They were devised by the director and his four stars, the members of the avant-garde Buenos Aires theater group Piel de Lava: Elisa Carricajo, Valeria Correa, Pilar Gamboa, and Laura Paredes (they appear in every segment but the fifth, and if I am not wrong, they are the only people to ever show up in multiple segments. But dear lord, don't let's pretend that my brain wasn't runny by the end of this). In the absence of any greater overarching theme, Llinás would like us to consider the project as his tribute to Piel de Lava, as collaborators, as actors, and as humans, who had the patience to put up with him for almost ten years while the film was in production.

In addition to telling us what La Flor is, Llinás very considerately offers us a roadmap. We're going to watch the film in three parts, which should be split over three days (Episodes I & II, then Episode III, then Episode IV-VI), with at least one or two intermissions every day; he doesn't specify, but in practice, this means that the longest time you ever go without a break is something like 2.5 hours, which is the first half of the first part. And all of this - which gets us about five minutes into the thing, so I promise I'll pick up the pace in a minute here - is weirdly, very friendly. The in-movie Llinás is a very apologetic, awkward figure, who is openly embarrassed about having spent ten years making a 13.5-hour multipart cinematic object, and finds it both neat and strange that there are enough masochistic cinephiles like, well, like myself, for a project such as this one to actually find its audience. He'll show up a couple of more times, once just to give us encouragement to push through to the next intermission, by which point we'll be around halfway through the whole movie.

If that sounds weird, it ought to. La Flor is a weird movie: it takes an amount of hubris that can hardly be quantified for a filmmaker to start his 14-hour epic by casually telling the viewer that we're not going to get any satisfying narrative closure throughout any of it. This immediately forces us to engage with the film on a very different level than we're ordinarily invited to do. It's not a film that's good at telling stories, though storytelling is absolutely the film's main interest: the act of storytelling, that is, how we as film viewers take in information and assemble it into a narrative; how a screenwriter decides what tropes and clichés to activate in a genre and which to subvert. It's metanarrative all the way down: by the time the first of the six episodes has started, La Flor has already asked its audience why we're sitting down for this enormous beast of a film, since it won't be to hear a tale well-told. Nor six tales.

That answer is going to be down to the individual viewer (and of course, one of the possible answers is, "well, I wouldn't"). But there are some places we could start. One of which is that the first three episodes, in particular, are basically genre playgrounds, starting with familiar material and shuffling it around with a great deal of deadpan humor. Episode I is a horror movie - Llinás mentions in his intro that it's an example of the kind of thing that Hollywood filmmakers used to be able to do without trying - in which an ancient mummy brings its curse to the present, causing first a cat and then humans to go violently insane; it breaks off right at the moment that a paranormal expert (Gamboa) arrives to explain what's going on, and how much worse this is than the scientists researching the mummy (Carricajo, Correa, and Paredes) could possibly imagine. Episode II is two genres for the price of one: part of it is a melodrama about the music industry, in which Victoria (Gamboa) is obliged, very reluctantly, to reach out to ex-partner Ricky (Héctor Diaz), who left her for her rival Andrea (Correa), to have him help flesh out her newest single, whose lyrics conveniently speak to the rage that still bubbles between them - the full performance of this song, near the end of the episode, is one of the most wholly pleasurable moments in the whole film. The other part is a thriller, which finds Andrea's assistant Flavia (Paredes) crossing paths with a secret club of wealthy conspirators, led by Isabela (Carricajo), who consume scorpion venom as a way of extending their lifespans; Flavia alone knows how to find the world's rarest scorpion, which will be the club's key to immortality. Episode III, which is almost six hours all by itself (and is also the most purely enjoyable part of the whole) is a spy movie, in which four assassins are brought to South America during the Cold War to kidnap a scientist, only to find that their agency has sent another four assassins have been dispatched to kill them and the scientist; as the women calmly wait for the showdown, they each recall their life's work that brought them to this point, which means we get four flashbacks of nearly an hour each, all of them in a different subgenre of spy movie: a melodramatic doomed romance, a exhausting character drama, a snotty political farce, and an ascetic tale of Soviet bureaucracy - all of them shot in different countries around the globe, on top of it. And it's almost entirely in French, a language none of the four actresses speaks.

Things get much stranger from this point on: Episode IV is a metamovie about this metamovie, in which a film director making a huge sloppy epic starring four actresses in a series of absurd anecdotes pisses them off and is pissed off by them, and so he storms off into the wild to shoot trees. Months later, an investigator trying to figure out what happened after this finds the director's journal, and discovers it to be an indecipherable scribble of pretentious nonsense, trying to structure a movie with a narrative diagram that looks like a spider. Over the course of his investigation, he uncovers the links between these events and the life of Casanova. Episode 5 is a silent movie in crisp digital black-and-white that occasionally grabs snippets of audio from the Renoir film, and features none of the four women; the echoes of their fury with the Llinás stand-in make it feel like this abortive breakdown of sound and image is the result of La Flor's failure as an experiment and as a collaboration - it's the least watchable of the segments, despite being the only complete story. Episode 6 brings the four women back, but kept far away from the camera, which is itself filthy and smudgy, as though the actresses are escaping from the container Llinás and La Flor were trying to place them into, even as the story being told is one of escape from a controlling man.

Taken as a whole - and despite the film's superficial resemblance to an anthology of disconnected shorts, it is very much meant to be taken as a whole - this is a grand-scale examination of how movies work and what they do. It starts with a junky B-movie plot shot on the shitty digital cameras available to a low-budget film production in 2009, with simplistic, empty compositions, and moves to a more polished look that still relies to a perverse degree on shallow-focus close-ups, before exploding in Episode III in a wide array of styles that accentuate the moods and stories of the very busy spy narrative. It then compresses again, until in Episode VI it has regressed to a form of proto-cinema. The narratives go from simple to complex genres, until Episode IV arrives at a mature form of art cinema, and then suddenly things break into stories that barely communicate meaning at all. Alongside this aesthetic and narrative development, there's a thematic evolution concerning the way that women have been used in movies made by men: we see the members of Piel de Lava filling various fantasy roles, until it's finally when they play vindictive witches that they stop indulging the film's reductive characterisations and disappear.

All of which explains what a heady intellectual game La Flor can be, but it completely misses the very important fact that this is, in addition to being a busily post-modern object, a hell of a lot of fun. With the possible exception of Episode VI, these stories are all fundamentally comedies. Frequently, they're extremely deadpan comedies, where the only obvious joke is that everything is generic balderdash cranked up as high as it goes. Sometimes, though, it's just plain funny, as in the investigator's banal deflating of the director's poetically heightened musings in Episode IV. Llinás has given us permission, at the very onset, not to take anything too terribly seriously, and the whole film from that point basically becomes a sandbox: what it puts me in mind of, more than anything else, is PlayTime, with an emphasis on narrative structure instead of production design. But the sense of something overflowing with delightful little grace notes and details for us to grab onto as best we can, while the thing flows over us. It's a shockingly enjoyable film for something so stuck inside its own head and up its own ass, doing right by its genre elements and operating with a tongue stuck firmly in its cheek even at its most overtly artistic moments.

But there's something even more important than that!