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Upstream Colour (Film Review)

See what we thought of Shane Carruth’s enigmatic and surreal film, Upstream Color.


Title: Upstream Colour

Cert: 15

Release Date: Out now

Shane Carruth returned recently with a follow up, after a hiatus of 9 years, to his directorial début Primer. This film is an equally mind bending, but great film. Oh and genre defying as well, don’t forget that. (Although for reviews sake I am considering this a horror/thriller/art house film.)

Upstream Colour draws viewers in with intrigue as they see a strange plant being cultivated throughout the film, a mysterious pig farm and other enigmatic and abstract plot points. The film follows the life of Kris (Amy Seimetz), as her life is derailed by a thief who seems to have a strange control over her. With no memory of her bizarre actions, (including removing significant funds from her bank account and signing over her house,) she is left lost and disconnected from things. That is until she finds solace in a relationship with a man who appears to have gone through a similar experience, a broke, former stock broker named Jeff (Shane Carruth,) who bears the same mysterious mark on his ankle.

The narrative unfolds as a subtly done, slow paced thriller that does not try to please all audiences. It has use of obvious subtexts or over exposition of what everything means, in a polar opposite approach to how many Hollywood films often spoon feed their audiences the narrative. A left field film that is arguably Kafkaesque, Upstream Colour is thought provoking and innovative in the way that it gives its viewers threads of the story.

The film often resembles dense prose or poetry at points, in both structure and narrative. In one scene, poetry is read from a book called ‘Walden’, the writings and philosophical musings of  Henry David Thoreau which bears a significant resemblance to the nature of the narrative and its reflections on life. There are lines such as “I have to apologise as I have a facial disfigurement where my face is made from the same material as the sun” amongst others that sound ridiculous, but Carruth has managed to keep such strange dialogue in the film and it somehow makes sense in its bizarre context.

Upstream Colour originally premiered at Sundance Film Festival and was produced on a modest budget of £7,000. The film is a testament to indie films and Shane Carruth wore many ‘hats’ for the film’s creation, including: producer,director, lead actor, writer and composer. The film went on to win the festival’s Special Jury Prize and became nominated for its prestigious Grand Jury Prize award.

Cinematography
In terms of cinematography the first thing noticeable was the amount of lens flare, the interesting depth of field focus and some slightly shaky shots. It was interesting to see these things the way they were, obviously intend to be part of the cinematic aesthetic and they work brilliantly for the sci fi, slightly ethereal mood of the film. When one of the actors is by a window, there are reflection flares of that exact scene that float around and flood lights create bubble flares which also float around. Seeing it done in a consistent and artistic way, it definitely works well and adds to the low budget ‘sci fi-ness’ of the film.

There are some slightly wobbly shots that fit just fine with its indy production values. There’s also some brilliant shots, including the iconic poster shot where Jeff and Kris are curled up in a bathtub, with a torch aimed at the door – as if expecting an enemy to appear. There are also the strange mixed up memory scenes where they argue whose memories are whose and what exactly is going on? What does it all mean? As the characters have conflicted recollections of their memories things become even more complicated. Every shot is idiosyncratic of Carruths definitive style that he has chosen for the film, with a drifting focus and plenty of shallow focus shots to draw us into the world of the protagonist characters.

Soundtrack

Just as his shot choice is definitive of his vision, his soundtrack is too. If anything the soundtrack is more unique, a sombre and melancholy selection, composed by Carruth himself and ranging from cascading piano and various string instruments to rhythmic synth sounds with an ethereal cadence that have an underwater dreamy kind of impression, which mirrors the flow of the film and resonates the state of the characters.

Final Thoughts

It’s not for everyone and personally, there was a need for a bit more dialogue and a more varied soundtrack with a few slightly more upbeat tempo tracks, but there is no doubt that this is overall a well crafted and original film. For anyone looking for a more comprehensive explanation of the story, there are various interview Q&A’s with Carruth where he more or less explains things, but he has said that he wants people to get different interpretations of the film, which is an interesting concept. To ‘understand’ the film may take more than one viewing, but all in all Upstream Colour is a great film that many may have missed out on and is definitely worth buying now that it is out on DVD!

Verdict: 8/10

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