Six or so hours into Mariano Llinás’s 13-hours-plus arthouse ultramarathon, the third episode of the third chapter begins with a long bout of snoring. That’s the presiding meta spirit of this magnificent, inventive, playful, exasperating film, Argentina’s longest ever, shot over 10 years. In its nexus of stories, La Flor inevitably invokes the country’s fabulist god Jorge Luis Borges – but as if Llinás had given up on the metaphysics, stopped trying to exit the labyrinth and was content to watch folk passing through.
The director pops up at the beginning on a park bench to explain that its six stories, featuring the same four female actors, form a structure: four stories rising up with a beginning but no end (the petals), one totally enclosed central tale (the ovule), a closing one that proceeds from the middle to the end (the stalk), making a flower (hence the title).
It might add up, it might not. Even more than Borges, La Flor recalls Tristram Shandy, both in its loquacious literary bent (Llinás has worked extensively as a screenwriter) and its gentle deconstruction of the purpose and proclivities of fiction. From the very first segment, a B-movie “of the kind the Americans used to make”, about a research institute that accepts the delivery of a sinister Inca mummy, most of the stories come larded with a melodrama that seems designed to foreground the artifice.
La Flor is terminally prone to digressions, tales interrupting other tales, such as the weird scorpion-milking immortality cult that juts into the second episode, until then a matinee tearjerker about a pair of singer-songwriters splitting up.
Llinás’s fun, spirited writing stops these games from seeming arch. Unlike the social-message remit of Miguel Gomes’s similarly sprawling 2015 trilogy Arabian Nights, Llinás’s motivation seems entirely philosophical. The third episode – a spy thriller, or, given its five-and-a-half-hour runtime, anti-thriller – may contain the nub regarding fiction and the point at which we suspend disbelief. One character talks fearfully of the “tsetse fly”, an existential affliction spies are prone to being stung by – in which either a disgust sets in with the fiction they are forced to live, or they start to over-identify with this false reality and go rogue. “Suddenly that bunch of motherfuckers was her world,” says the narrator of Pilar Gamboa’s mute spook, undercover in Westminster. Anyone still sitting there after six hours will sympathise.
Gamboa is frequently extraordinary in the early instalments, especially as the spurned singer who unleashes an incredible torrent of verbal violence at the start of number two. Laura Paredes, whose serene melancholy seems to survive whatever character she plays, also stands out. Madness seemed to be setting in by chapter four, about a director under siege from his four principals, who are also witches. The fifth is a loose remake of Renoir’s A Day in the Country, the sixth about 19th-century women escaping from captivity in the desert.
You will no doubt bail out at some point – but that’s part of the deal. Llinás has done enough to make sure we come back.
• La Flor is released in the UK on 13 September.