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Upstream Colour (2013)
Director: Shane Carruth

review by Andrew Darlington

Very much a low-budget auteur effort, Upstream Colour is a one-man Shane Carruth effort. He's here on-screen as Jeff, a moody preoccupied presence, if not without some charisma. But check the credits, and his fingerprints are all over every aspect of the film, right down to scoring the doomy swathes of atmospheric electronic soundtrack. Former software developer Carruth gets a very minor easily-overlooked 'thanks' credit for Looper (2012). His ambitious long-term movie project trailered as 'A Topiary' was abandoned. But he did solo-pilot Primer (2004), his preceding indie debut.

With a typically venal contemporary edge in Primer, he plays Aaron who stumbles across a time-travel device as an accidental spin-off from his research. But rather than use it to say, resolve the historical questions of Jesus, or prevent the Kennedy assassination, or assassinate Corporal Hitler in the World War I trenches, he and his colleagues use it short-term acquisitively to make a stock-market killing.

The key to Upstream Colour is a kind of maggoty parasite that infects the bloodstream of the host, rendering it highly suggestible. This is also turned to grubbily unpleasant petty-criminal ends. But the sci-fi horror ingredients in both films are near-incidental to moody visual experiment. There's something of early David Lynch, going back to Eraserhead (1977), especially in the disturbing use of swelling sound to create a haunting dislocated strangeness. And something of David Cronenberg's body-horror in the red-tint squidgy squeamish blood-coloured intestinal sequences of the worm's wriggly progress through victim Kris' body. Later, she submerges in a swimming pool and undulates through it like the maggot swam through the liquids of her body.

To me, one of the most intriguing characters in the film is simply credited as 'the Sampler' (Andrew Sensenig), an enigmatic loner who creates ambient field sound-recordings of leaves in the breeze, a precariously collapsing pile of bricks, a rasp-file, or obsessively repeating the sound of stones sliding down the ribbed interior of man-tall drainage pipes until he achieves the exact combination of tones he needs, which he then sequences on his laptop keyboard. Perhaps that's Carruth's approach to film, investigating odd visual splices and sometimes-strikingly disjointed image-overlays towards his own unique aesthetic? Something similar to what Jean-Luc Godard or Luis Bunuel might have done long ago?

Plot-wise, Upstream Colour starts out with potted blue orchids infected with squirmy caterpillars. The plants are incinerated, while the pesky bugs are subjected to microscopic examination. A swarthy no-gooder credited as 'the Thief' (Thiago Martins) inserts one of the maggots into a drug-capsule then tazers a woman - Kris (Amy Seimetz), and snorts it into her mouth. There are long silences between subdued half-heard dialogue. Before the attack, she edits film-footage, playing frames of a mock-up Star Wars 'AT-AT Walker' back and forth on her monitor. Two kids rehearse elaborately coordinated choreography, what this represents - if anything, is never clear.

The Thief now controls her actions by suggestion. She reacts like an automaton. She drinks tumblers of iced water and transcribes passages from Henry David Thoreau's novel Walden. In a film laden with suggestions of hidden meanings and subtexts you wonder why Carruth has selected this particular essay on rural self-sufficiency. Is it a back-to-nature clue? A deliberate reference? Or just a throwaway pretension? The Thief lies to Kris that her mother has been abducted by several men - "I think they're hurting her," and that she must raise the ransom. In her suggestible state she signs away the equity of her home to him. Later, she sprawls on the bed as the maggot navigates her intestines, her fingers sensually grip and flex, her toes clench. When she sees the bug visibly slithering beneath her skin-surface she takes a laser-knife and tries to gouge it out.

Enter the Sampler, his recordings acting on the intestinal maggot. As earthworms coil and squirm, and a big old cassette-player pulses out electronic roars he operates on her, transfusing her parasite into the body of a pig. Slow-paced and impressionistic, she wakes in her car, slewed on the freeway central-reservation, with no memory of what's happened. Back home, she finds traces of her blood on the floor and the sheets. Her money has gone. A narrative leap takes her forward to a year, with short hair and a continually preoccupied expression; she strikes up a hesitant relationship with Jeff (Shane Carruth), who she meets on the subway train.

It becomes apparent both of their pasts have mysterious gaps, and interchangeable childhood memories. When she thinks she may be pregnant, a CAT-scan reveals her unsuspected medical history. Strands come together, memory-fragments return. In a bookshop she finds a copy of Walden, and realises she can recite entire passages from it by heart. This - and the electronic-music sounds that the Sampler played while operating on her, become the equivalent of Proust's madeleine, in unlocking suppressed memory. The three meet up. Both Jeff and Kris are graduates of the Sampler's intervention, and there's a network of other victims they connect with.

If this sounds oblique, but relatively straightforward, it isn't. It's also a beguiling and bewildering art-house film. There are tantalisingly iconic images, such as the poster-shot of fully-clothed Jeff and Kris protectively entwined in the empty bath, and the parallel narrative of a litter from the infected pig, which the Sampler places in a sack and throws off the bridge into the river - a discolouration cloud of blue oozes from the decomposing piglet-corpses to pollute the stream. In response, white orchids growing on the bank turn blue. Research samples are collected and a new generation of maggots squirm free.

Despite, or perhaps because of its deliberate obscurity, Upstream Colour is a hauntingly enigmatic movie that stays with you long after the DVD has ejected.

Upstream Colour DVD artwork

Upstream Colour alternative cover

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