USA 2012. Dir: Shane Carruth, Scr: Shane Carruth
At Better Than Disneyland we sometimes worry that we get too bogged down in trying to tie things down, trying to understand what the director wants to say. Sometimes we just want to answer the question, “Is it beautiful?” For Upstream Color this definitely feels like the more relevant question to ask, but the answer isn’t simple. This is a film whose powerful beauty is of the strangest kind. Instead of luxuriating, we find ourselves worrying. While it might be the most sensuous film we’ve seen this year – we feel the images and sounds they are so strong – it’s also possibly the most challenging. The narrative is not only obscure it is also far from a pleasing montage – the content is at times disturbing and horrifying. Although an award winner (for Sound Design) at Sundance, the film divided opinion – but what metaphysical science fiction romantic thriller wouldn’t? We don’t find ourselves doing anything as simple as loving it, we find ourselves absorbed by it, lost in thought about it and we nod in appreciation of a director who is challenging conventional cinematic language, comfortable with a bold language other than words.
A natural organism – a worm, a bug – is fed by a thief to a woman to drug her. The drug puts her under his control so that he can commit a sophisticated robbery. The organism, seemingly alive inside her, makes her ill. After an X files-like sequence to extract it in which she is “sampled” – her body is connected to a pig, she begins a difficult process of recovery and rehabilitation. She is thrown together with a man she meets on the train. He has lost his job due to a financial crime he committed (to recover money lost in a similar way?). Both are desperately fragile but they find protection in each other from things like the malevolent “surgeon”/pig-farmer who provides an otherworldly threat throughout.
If this seems bonkers, Carruth manages to keep the audience transfixed. His extraordinary use of sound, his mix of camerawork both angled and direct and his mix of the lyrical and the brutal amplify our emotional responses: we grimace as the woman clumsily tries to extract the organism herself, we feel the precarious safety of the two lovers as they hide away in their bath, wrapped in each other. He also handles the disturbing scenes in the early part of the film delicately. The drugged woman loses all choice, all power. The thief is in her apartment. But any sexual violence or exploitation is avoided and, at the same time, the thief is shown without judgement, almost in the abstract. Carruth also stars in the film with Amy Seimetz, who has a face that can reflect perfectly both emptiness and, in turn, inspiration by love. His bold creative talent is matched by his intelligence and his ability to worry. He worries about identity and what happens to someone when this is lost. He worries about how life is pieced together when someone has been violated. And he worries about nature and purity. Has man, or something, already interfered too much? Just as significant as the wild orchid turning an artificial blue is the final image: at first sight an upbeat, gentle note. But it’s a much more ambiguous image. Of mother and child, perhaps? It is a film to file under “special”, “unique”, a film to respect.