‘Upstream Color’: A Metaphorical Exploration of What It Means to Have a Self

I am absolutely an unreliable narrator.

Shane Carruth

“You can leave the tile. The rest of the floor will support your weight now.” So instructed, Kris (Amy Seimetz) pauses. Close-ups show her face, perplexed, her hair, damp, and her toes, exposed. Holes in Kris’ pantyhose remind you of a previous scene in Upstream Color, where she is drugged and dragged onto pavement. In that scene, Kris wakes to pelting rain, staggers to her feet and away from her assailant (Thiago Martins); in this scene, he’s describing to her what she’s feeling and how she might respond. “Your throat is parched,” he says, “Make a pitcher of ice water, bring a small glass.”

Kris appears in the next scene as knees only, the camera panning from her seated in a chair to the pitcher of ice water she’s “made”. The camera moves, you hear the assailant again, not quite explaining, “I have to apologize. I was born with a disfigurement where my head is made of the same material as the sun, which makes it impossible for you to look directly at me. It has always been this way.” A cut to Kris’ face shows her eyes lowered, as if to avoid the bright soft light that fills the frame.

These brief moments in Upstream Color hint at an abrupt subjective shift. Facing what appears a monster, as well as her own radical uncertainty, Kris responds. With her sense of self undone, her body suddenly strange to her, she can’t identify where or how she is. Just so, the film positions you in the midst of her un-knowing, as a process and as a series of seemingly unrelated events and behaviors. Kris hears and follows instructions from her assailant, called the Thief in the movie’s credits, indicating that he has stolen something from her, in that moment where he feeds her pills that have inside them small worms, the film’s visual and narrative point of departure for a formal, metaphorical exploration of what it means to have a self.

Not unlike filmmaker/mathematician Shane Carruth’s previous, also remarkable, film, Primer, this one manages that exploration by breaking up space and time, most vividly by use of sound — sound that’s pervasive and unfamiliar (Upstream Color won the Sound Design Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival). The sound here serves a narrative function, as a figure called the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) records it, from rustling leaves to running water to snuffling pigs. He also appears to perform a sort of surgery that connects Kris to one of these pigs, biologically, maybe genetically, certainly visually.

Whether or not the Sampler is an alien conducting one of those horrifying experiments that aliens in movies like to conduct matters less than his function as a kind of connective tissue: even as he observes and records his subjects (human or porcine), he doesn’t interact with them, until film’s end, when Kris looks directly at him (a look that appears to surprise him), then engages him. The moment is striking, and aptly violent, given that she spends so much of the film avoiding or resisting engagement. That she and Jeff see in one another similarities, and even seem reflections of one another, underlines the film’s investment in looking and seeing as means to define, if not precisely understand, relations between bodies, between beings.

In Primer, such investment was focused through a couple of guys’ peculiar confrontations with themselves (and each other), ordained by something like time travel. In Upstream Color, the conflicts and revelations are more internal, and not only because Kris and Jeff seem to be hosting alien worms, but also because their relationship, not quite romantic but excruciatingly intimate, is premised on a shared experience they don’t articulate so much as they perform. That’s not to say it’s not real, only that it’s represented to show the artifice of movie conventions (they eat together, they have sex, they smile in montages on sidewalks and in cars). Kris and Jeff feel a bond, as coupling movie characters do, but the story turns to the work that comes after that initial recognition, work narrated here as their analogous physical changes — afflictions, ruptures, apprehensions, disconnections — changes that are simultaneously literal and metaphorical.

Whether or not these changes have to do with their personal crises — the assault on Kris, for a most obvious instance, as it brings on her changing relationship to kitchen tiles and ice water — or with a more general, existential adversity remains unclear. And as such, it emulates the experience of trauma, as the personal turns abject and absolute, shaping all the rest of the victim’s world and time going forward. As Upstream Color contemplates and signifies loss and recovery, absorption and adjustment, it focuses on connection and reconnection, changes that may or may not be lasting.

RATING 9 / 10