A rhapsody in blue, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color takes a trip through other worlds and interconnected lives.
Blue Is The Warmest Colour by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Almost a decade after Shane Carruth’s cult debut Primer, the mathematician turned filmmaker has fashioned another otherworldly sci-fi thriller with Upstream Color. And if Primer was a mumble-core time-travelling spiral to echo low-fi and low-budget filmmaking, Upstream Color is something altogether more… Well, cinematic. With its shallow-focus, twilight-hued visuals, its almost dialogue-free progression and overarching musical score, there’s a less indie and more arthouse feel to Upstream Color, but with still the same labyrinthine layering of parallel worlds. Carruth ups the ante with a kind of inexorable fatalism that lends itself to all kinds of religious, scientific and political readings, but with Carruth’s utter control over proceedings – writing, directing, producing, editing, acting, shooting and even composing the film’s musical score, there’s a lightness of touch to the renaissance man’s second feature that carries us upstream.
Kris (Amy Seimetz) is a successful digital effects specialist, until one night she goes to a club and, unsuspectingly, takes a very special narcotic. Sourced from the larvae of blue eggs, it’s a potent drug that can heighten the senses and create a mental bond of simultaneous action. Catatonic, it leaves her vulnerable to the manipulations of the thief (Thiago Martins), who hypnotises her with manual tasks – transcribing excerpts from Thoreau’s Walden to turn into paper chains – depriving Kris of sleep and food, drinking only water and ice cubes, until she’s emptied her bank account into his. With the worm coursing through her body, she finds the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) who conducts a human to pig transfusion, eventually snapping out of her trance and back into life. Sacked from her job, she commutes by train to her new job in a print shop, meeting Jeff (Shane Carruth) – a divorced and fraudulent broker with a lot of perseverance. The couple form a tight bond, sharing each other’s (fictitious) memories, together digging deeper into Kris’s forgotten past.
Blue, probably creation’s most unnatural hue, provides the guiding colour scheme to Shane Carruth’s metaphysical sci-fi thriller Upstream Color, as it gradually becomes apparent that this unnatural blueness is part of a life cycle; the psychotropic larva found in the roots of an exotic plant is ingested, transplanted into a pig – a kind of homunculus for its human counterpart – who finds a mate, bears piglets which are then drowned by the sampler, rot underwater and feed the plants that are then harvested and potted up. And this narcotic blue is repeatedly picked up by the camera, in eggs and flowers, but most vividly in the putrefying squalls that suffuse upstream, this vicious circle of interconnected lives only broken when Kris kills the Sampler and frees the pigs.
The film’s mesmerising, kaleidoscopic concatenation of images is reminiscent of Gaspar Noé’s Enter The Void, mixed with the all-American palette of whirling starlings and brushed hands in close-up of Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder, and a Cronenbergian body horror. There’s also a doubling that recalls not only Carruth’s debut but also Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique, with humans mystically tethered to other (porcine) sentient beings, while the Sampler’s sound recordings echo Alexandre’s sirenic love song comprised of snippets from the Parisian soundscape. But these borrowings are not only a sociopathic harvesting of stolen identities, but also a betrayal of Carruth’s own cinematic sampling.
Like platonic shades, Kris and Jeff live downstream in a muted world of anxiety and repentance. Their awareness of an upstream realm allows for all sorts of religious, scientific and political interpretations, but it’s a metaphysical plane without a divinity – with only Kris and her woman’s intuition to break the perpetual cycle. Her keys are stones retrieved from the bottom of a swimming pool and remembered fragments of Thoreau’s Walden, which ease her into a trance, which (and Carruth never quite explains how) allows her to cross the lethean waters into this otherworldly kingdom.
While in Primer women barely featured, you could accuse Upstream Color of a misogynistic script – nothing’s more attractive than a woman with baggage unable to even begin to explain her psychological trauma. But to be fair, it’s not just women who have problems in Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color even if Kris and her unmentionable past blow his reformed fraudster and substance abuser out of the water. Yet by blurring the boundaries between his layers of fiction, there’s still the possibility Upstream Color‘s parallel dimensions are pure fantasy, and that Kris’ now barren body could have been racked by a type of endometrial cancer – even if we know it was probably the vicious worm.
If Primer was the story of male ambition to succeed, Upstream Color is Shane Carruth’s love story, two broken souls who find each other and become close to the point of finishing each other’s memories, no longer sure where the one ends and the other begins. Carruth’s lyrical stream of images prioritises visuals over story, and the links that knit the story together aren’t always clear. But with his enjoyably enigmatic and thought-provoking film, Shane Carruth leads us into his colourful otherworld upstream.
Upstream Color is released on 30th August 2013 in the UK