“I’m not going to need any signage, ok,” says Jeff (Shane Carruth) to Kris (Amy Seimetz), some way into Upstream Colour.
Having been fed a mind-altering grub by a Thief (Thiago Martins) and fleeced of her money, credit and identity, Kris now works at a printer’s shop, cast adrift with feelings she no longer understands. Inexplicably drawn to Jeff, a fellow traveler and lost soul living out of a hotel room, Kris slowly starts reconnecting to the world in a manner that is all at once meandering and mysterious. Meanwhile a man Kris once met—credited as ‘the Sampler’ (Andrew Sensenig)—records and remixes ambient sounds into musique concrète, when he is not tending the pigs on his farm or vicariously observing the lives of strangers…
Shane Carruth’s time-traveling debut Primer (2004) conceived a world where multiple versions of characters co-existed uneasily while repeatedly fine-tuning the past. But even if there is a far stricter chronological ordering to the way the parallel events unfold in this long-awaited follow-up, Carruth’s use of narrative ellipses and elisions, not to mention a total absence of exposition, make Upstream Colour an even more confounding experience. Here, viewers are left to link together a chain of suggestive connections between grubs, humans and swine, between mesmerism and déjà vu, between phantom pregnancies and drowned litters, all coordinated by Carruth—much as the Sampler orchestrates his music—from a cycling, repetitive intermixing of apparently unrelated sources. With individual scenes presented in choppy fragments yet match-cut perfectly to other scenes involving different characters in entirely separate locations, the film is tightly edited (by Carruth) and coherently scored (again by Carruth) to suggest an organic principle underlying the film’s many disparate elements.
The bewilderment expertly modulated by Seimetz and Carruth in their characters’ quest for connection will certainly find its analogue in viewers, desperate for some kind of signage amidst all the noise of free-floating associations, sympathetic storylines and evocative motifs; scattered papers, underwater swimming, the works of Henry David Thoreau. Of course, this disorienting, dreamlike quality is one of the key pleasures (and frustrations) of Upstream Colour, as we, along with the two leads, are made to feel like rats in a maze (or perhaps pigs in a pen). Solutions to the film’s hermeneutic challenges are certainly out there for those who want to look (and readily searchable on-line), but subjecting this multi-faceted film to a simple, overarching explanatory frame proves as banally disappointing as reducing humanity to mere DNA and parasitology. Better to turn off your mind, relax and float upstream, surrendering to the film’s cool—chilly, even—beauty and extraordinary sound design.