Sundance London Review
Imagine for a moment gentle reader that you’re on holiday. You’re on holiday in Switzerland. You’re having a rare old time; it’s a veritable non-stop orgy of yodelling, fondue and Toblerones.
Then, deep underground at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, two particles collide, tearing a hole in the fabric of space-time, in the very fabric of reality, sucking you into a parallel universe where Little England’s favourite Sunday night veterinarian, James Herriot, is plying his trade not in Yorkshire but in Texas where America’s Greatest Living Filmmaker, Terrence Malick, hires him to write a paranoid sci-fi love story. With cute pigs.
While that’s not the story behind writer/director Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, the beautiful, mesmerising, meandering follow-up to 2008’s hugely overrated, low-fi sci-fi Primer, it might have been more fun.
Described by Sundance’s publicists as “A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives,” Carruth’s Upstream Color strives for ambiguity with a would-be existential romance that asks all the expected, obvious questions about love, memory, identity and freewill beloved of American Indie filmmakers while stirring in a dash of tasteful Cronenberg-style body horror to keep things fresh.
An unscrupulous con-man (Thiago Martins) cultivates bizarrely narcotic maggots which he force-feeds to our heroine Kris (Amy Seimetz), drugging and hypnotising her, emptying her bank accounts and causing the loss of her job, leaving her infested with psychotropic, telepathic worms which she tries to cut from her own body before an enigmatic scientist/vet (Andrew Sensening) removes and transplants them into a cute little pig he keeps in an enclosure with her porcine friends.
Trying to rebuild her shattered life, Kris meets and falls in love with Jeff (Shane Carruth), whose body bears similar scars to her own and may just be a victim of the same weird experiments as her. As their relationship develops, their memories and identities melt and merge, causing them to descend into fear and paranoia and forcing Kris to take drastic action.
Never as clever or fascinating as it thinks it is or as tricky or complex as its rapturous reviews would suggest, Upstream Color is an elliptical, deliberately obtuse, woozily pretty film that, despite its sophomoric pretentiousness, succeeds in intriguing without being anywhere near as involving as it should be.
Seimetz is as wonderful here as she was in Adam Wingard’s A Horrible Way To Die or her numerous mumblecore outings, her Kris is vulnerable, damaged, hesitant, courageous, while the surprisingly charismatic Carruth acquits himself well as her spiky suitor, the two making an affecting, edgily sweet couple whose hesitant romance you want to see succeed. Less successful however is Carruth’s sci-fi elements which lend Upstream Color a heavy-handed quasi-religiosity not unlike Malick’s recent films (The Tree Of Life, To The Wonder). An undeniably hypnotic, technically brilliant (it’s one of the most densely edited films you’ll see this year), aesthetically gorgeous, sensual piece of cinema, Upstream Color also somehow manages to be ponderous, a little too smug, too impressed with itself. An exercise in cod-profundity.
Bold, baffling, enthralling, frustrating and ultimately unsatisfying, Upstream Color is a willfully obtuse piece of work that seems determined to make you feel something, anything, despite itself. And if you don’t fall in love with Seimetz, you’ll definitely fall for those pigs.