After the strange but compelling lo-fi sci-fi of Primer released in 2004, director Shane Carruth went quiet for some time, working on a couple of different projects before resurfacing in 2013 with Upstream Colour, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
Anyone who has seen Primer would probably have been prepared for a mental challenge on sitting down to watch Upstream Colour – after all Primer was a film that was completely uncompromising in its vision, and refused to spoonfeed the audience, well, anything. But what perhaps was unexpected about Upstream Colour is its extraordinary visual beauty “ full of striking, oblique imagery, it’s clear from the start that Upstream Colour is something quite different. The camera is usually pulled in tight to its subject “ be that a face or a hand, a collection of paperchains, orchids or a decomposing pig. The contrast between what’s in focus in the shot and what isn’t is often very strong too, so you find yourself glancing at the edges of the frame in search of clues about what’s happening “ clues that never reveal themselves fully.
The plot centres around Kris, a young woman who is drugged while on a night out, by a man who forces her to inhale a grub that lives in the roots of a certain orchid. This puts her in a powerfully suggestible state and the man takes advantage of this to get Kris to drain her bank accounts. He leaves with her life savings and Kris awakens days later to find the grub has now grown into huge worms rippling down the insides of her body. She is mysteriously drawn to ˜The Sampler’, a man who lives in the country and who is able to remove the worms from her and transplant them into a pig.
Previously in some kind of sleepwalking state, Kris returns to full consciousness in her car, somewhere on the highway, with no memory of events, no money, and no job thanks to her inexplicable absence. She is left to try to pick up the pieces of a life that has developed some kind of nightmare logic, where her moods seem to be connected to the physical wellbeing of a pig and where her memories seems to be merging with those of Jeff, a recovering drug addict that she meets on the train one day.
Primer was like a difficult puzzle. It was complex and challenging, but there was always the feeling that if you thought about it long enough and hard enough, applying cold logic, it would give up its meaning. Upstream Colour is more like a kind of visual poetry with oblique and fragmentary moments of understanding. And like poetry, it can be beautiful but also frustrating “ there is minimal dialogue or exposition and it’s perhaps a question of creating your own meaning rather than finding the answers. Scenes are not always ordered chronologically, it’s not always clear if events are taking place in the physical world or the characters’ mental spaces. The narrative framework that audiences come to expect from cinema is absent, which is a disconcerting experience.
Ultimately, Upstream Colour is weirdly compelling throughout, with beautiful imagery, light and music. But while fascinating, it’s never really enjoyable on a narrative level. More art installation piece than movie, for me, its frustrations just about trumped its virtues. That said, it’s hard to be overly negative about something that follows its own direction so utterly and which differs so vastly from the cinematic norm.