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On the beach

A scene from the documentary film “Balnearios,” directed by Mariano Llinas.
A scene from the documentary film “Balnearios,” directed by Mariano Llinas.(Harvard Film Archive)

Mariano Llinás, the subject of the Harvard Film Archive retrospective The Extraordinary Stories of Mariano Llinás (Feb. 2-22), is best known for his three-part magnum (and apparently unfinished) opus “La Flor” (2016-18), which lasts more than 13 hours and features four actresses in what sounds like an endlessly exfoliating and self-reflecting series of plots, allusions, generic deconstructions, and the like, an amalgam perhaps of Borges the surreal filmmaker Raúl Ruiz, Julio Cortázar’s 1963 novel, “Hopscotch,” and maybe a little bit of Jacques Rivette of the “Celine and Julie Go Boating” (1974) period . If you want you can still catch part three, at 342 minutes, on Feb. 17 at 2 p.m., and Llinás himself will be on hand to walk you through it.

Less daunting is his first film, “Balnearios” (Feb. 22 at 9 p.m.), a rollicking, unconventional, and likely unreliable documentary that clocks in at a brisk 8o minutes. The title is Spanish for “Beach Resorts,” and through multiple chapters, and chapters within chapters, and with multiple voice-over narrators, Llinás explores the title vacation spots along the Atlantic coast of Argentina south of Buenos Aires.

He begins with an introduction consisting of what looks like ancient home movies of vacationers frolicking in the surf, with ranks of hotels looming in the distance. The grandiloquent and coy narration relates that the resorts began in the 1900s, created by those who believed that paradise was “something possible, immediate, and easy.” They were “invented by a century that still played, that still was innocent.”

A century or so later, many of those early resorts are gaudy, abandoned heaps. One of these, the Mar del Sur, is inhabited by a spectral figure known as Mr. G. Years ago, with his wife, “a young French singer vastly experienced in musical comedies of little note,” Mr. G. defrauded his business partners and took sole possession of the premises. The couple became the hotel’s sole inhabitants. They locked themselves inside, and Mr. G wandered the dilapidated halls while his wife sang in the empty ballroom, until they were swindled in turn and then the plot thickens with treachery and murder.

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It’s like an episode from Guy Maddin’s “My Winnipeg” (2007) with shades of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980) and it is a tough act to follow. Subsequent chapters observe with sometimes strained archness how a resort goes through rapid, seasonal transitions from winter ghost town to the hectic, tacky activity of the summer. Other chapters engage in pseudo-anthropological studies of such resort rituals as setting up parasols and lying on the sand, or profile stereotypical denizens, such as annoyed senior citizens, annoying children, pesky vendors, and the zomboid clientele of a video game arcade. There is a sojourn to a beach town that, inexplicably, had submerged into the ocean, with only the tips of street lights indicating where it once was.

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Only in the last chapter does Llinás return to form. He moves from the natural beaches on the coast to artificial beaches in the interior, bleak patches of water formed by the concrete and rusted steel of hydroelectric projects initiated by the Juan Perón regime in the 1950s. Now crowds of bathers flock to these, and they are ruled over by an immense, obese, mustachioed bourgeois riding a scooter. He is a philosopher of the banal and an artist who cuts childish figures out of rusty tin. One of these sculptures, of a whale, he hammers into a sandy dune. Gazing at it proudly, he says, “Leviathan.”


Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.