A successful career woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz) is targeted by a thief (Thiago Martins), who has created some kind of drug through the harvesting of worms that have psychotropic qualities. The worms allow the thief to brainwash Kris into a series of compulsively repetitive rituals – including copying out Thoreau’s Walden by hand – before stealing her life savings and abandoning her to be released, to some extent – and in some mysterious way, via music – from her state by a mysterious Sampler and pig farmer (Andrew Sensenig), who removes and seemingly transplants the parasites. Kris will never quite recover. She has no idea what has happened to her, or the money that has been stripped away, or her identity. She is damaged goods. And apparently psychically linked to a pig.
To write out one of Shane Carruth’s films as a synopsis is to do it a terrible injustice. First of all, thinking about the story in this bare-bones way makes its bizarreness too vulnerable to an easy dismissal as whimsical quirk. And secondly, because his filmmaking lives in the gaps, the ellipses. Memory is untrustworthy; dialogue is rigged, manipulative; and character is fragile, as identity can unravel at any moment. Something intricate, hyper-rationally thought out and finely detailed (and yet utterly mad/normal) is happening, but the camera catches it in glances and jigsaw pieces, overheard conversations, sounds that communicate something deeply mysterious, and beautiful rhyming colours. There is no grand scheme, or conspiracy, but everyone is interconnected in a way that only we can begin to unpick.
Whereas many contemporary films could just as easily be radio plays, Upstream Colour is ambitiously cinematic. Scenes play out over multiple locations and large sections of the film dispense entirely with dialogue; exposition sits in a lonely corner with the other arts of spoonfeeding. There are beautiful visions of microscopic life, as well as decay and paranoia, underwater. As an allegory, the film does not lend itself for easy unfolding, but the film operates almost like magic realism. It is unashamedly sensuous. As the characters strive for communication and agreement about what is going on, the film itself attempts to give us the qualia of lived immediate experience. The title itself evokes both colour and motion, and, by association, sound. The sound design is an on-screen character. Characters manipulate each other’s reality, and at the same time try to grasp at what is there. Characters hear sounds and see colours which mean something, though – in keeping with the film’s suspicion of explication – they cannot quite put it into words: ‘It’s a low sound’, ‘No, it’s high’, ‘Yes, it’s high and low.’
Kris meets Jeff (Carruth again), and they begin a relationship that borders on the kind an amnesia-struck Adam and Eve after the Fall might have had. Something happened to them that they don’t fully understand, and feel in some way deeply guilty about, and yet they’re trying to get on with their lives. This original sin is still there, blocking their ability to progress in a world that is set against them. And yet it also gives them their compulsion to be together, the consolation of their passion, their mutual need. It is one of the triumphs of the film that this genre-defying oddity, this magnificent cinematic poem, is also quietly a brilliant and moving love story.
Watch the trailer: