Upstream Colour will probably infuriate as many people as it charms, because in the strictest sense you can’t ‘understand’ it. Sure, you can follow the plot, but you won’t ever reach the point where you can sit down and say, “I get it”. That’s because it takes leaps of faith within itself. This film features a man linking his sensory experience to others via what appears to be aural interactions with pigs, but the story is told absolutely straight-faced. It will be divisive, because it isn’t afraid to adopt the fanciful and run with it.
The film is sparsely populated in terms of supporting characters, but its star is Amy Seimetz, who gives a very good performance. She plays Kris, a woman whom we initially meet as she is being guided, under a form a hypnosis, through a series of weird tasks. She later meets Jeff (Shane Carruth, also the director), who shares with her a strange and mysterious bond. To go into too much plot detail would give things away, but anyway this isn’t a film that fits easily into a pithy synopsis. Suffice it to say that it isn’t entirely coincidence that Kris and Jeff end up finding each other.
Carruth, whose last film was the super low budget time travel thriller Primer, way back in 2004, is all over Upstream Colour. As well as directing and co-starring, he also wrote the screenplay, acted as cinematographer and co-editor, and composed the original score. The latter point is especially salient: the film’s weird, winding soundscapes are quite something, and help lend the story an alluring sensory quality. There’s also a central plot point that revolves around sound – a bizarre but bizarrely successful sequence.
Films like Upstream Colour do not, and do not intend to, operate under what we might call the ‘normal’ functions of narrative or character development. Mood is important. I’ve heard the film called ‘Lynchian’ in some quarters, and while Upstream Colour doesn’t come anywhere near the unflinching impenetrability of something like Inland Empire, the comparison is not entirely unwarranted. This is evidently striving to be evocative of themes larger than what is immediately on screen, and in that respect it is only partially successful.
It’s not that the plot’s incomprehensibly told, because it’s actually quite clear by the end; it’s that it perhaps doesn’t have the depth of insight Carruth was looking for. There’s a strange, ephemeral profundity to the scenes I mentioned above, in which a man wanders around collecting and manipulating sound samples. But like much of the film, this makes sense on a hypothetical, intangible level. If you try to actually understand it, you’ll find yourself in a cul-de-sac. It’s better to just drift along and be swept up.
For most of Upstream Colour’s run time, that’s enough, but it can’t quite reach the point where you feel its philosophy shines through, or where it really achieves an emotional weight. It’s a bit of a mishmash of ideas and feelings, some of which come across strongly and others not so much. The ending is, perhaps inevitably, a mild disappointment. Even though I enjoyed the film, I still felt frust rated by it. It’s evocative, but beneath the stylised direction and the mesmerising soundtrack, perhaps a little cold, like a concept album without a fully formed idea to drive it.