Blue dust clings to leaves. Boys drink an unknown liquid and make synchronised movements that could be a dance or a fight. Grub-like creatures are collected and carefully sorted. Bin liners are dragged out to a dumpster, stuffed with paper chains covered in unintelligible writing.
Like the rest of what follows, Upstream Colour’s opening imagery is both strikingly gorgeous and difficult to understand. Obviously it all means something, but what that something is exactly isn’t made clear. As the film unfurls in its beautiful fug, the common reaction to a first viewing is outright bewilderment, and what’s most surprising is what a refreshing experience that is.
Confusion has largely been banished from contemporary cinema: even when a film obscures the machinations of its plot or the true motivations of its characters, its structure can usually be easily processed and understood throughout. This insistence on narrative clarity in modern filmmaking is what makes Upstream Colour feel like such an outlier. Rarely letting a scene play out in full, the film flits from moment to moment, making temporal jumps and finding itself caught in loops, or drawing unexplained parallels.
Completed nine years after his similarly uncompromising debut Primer, it’s understandable how director Shane Carruth (also the writer, composer, co-editor and co-star) had such trouble finding funding for the film: from its aggressive sound design to its surreal imagery – which may be metaphorical, hallucinatory, or something else entirely – Carruth disregards prevailing storytelling conventions for an approach that is far more opaque.
Even though it can often feel like watching a foreign language film without the subtitles on, it’s clear at all times that every shot, sound and line of dialogue has a specific meaning. Somehow, this seems more important than whether you understand what that meaning is or not. Carruth places faith not in the audience’s ability to keep up, but in their capacity to be comfortable with not always keeping up. It’s through this – as well as its overwhelming splendour – that the film manages to avoid the frustration that could make such a picture unwatchable.
While the struggle to decipher what exactly is going on is part of Upstream Colour’s many pleasures, its obfuscations also serve an important narrative purpose. It would be unfair – and unproductive – to articulate the plot, but the film for the most part follows Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Carruth), who meet after their identities have been violated by the actions of another character. Their combined efforts to rebuild their lives are hindered by the extreme disassociation caused by the procedure they were made to go through, and this disorientation is manifested in the film’s sustained perplexing mood. It’s an elegantly conceived, effective way to reflect the emotional state of the characters, as well as to depict the deep transgression they’ve uncomprehendingly suffered.
A puzzle box of a film, Upstream Colour’s many enigmas are designed to linger far past the point when the credits have started running, but aside from a few key scenes its central narrative is relatively straightforward. Instead, it’s the beguiling manner in which it asks its questions that leaves the deepest impression. To fully enjoy the film, then, one must embrace not just its mysteries, but its obstinate, vibrant confusion.
Upsteam Colour is out in the UK on 30th August.