Upstream Colour: Cronenbergian scenes which try to break loose from conventional storytelling

Ryan Gilbey tries to puzzle out an ice cool drama from Shane Carruth - a circle-of-life story with psychedelic maggots.

Upstream Colour (12A)
dir: Shane Carruth
 
It’s a story as old as time. Boy meets girl, boy forces girl to ingest psychedelic maggot, plunging her into extreme hypnotic state during which he divests her of all her worldly belongings, girl recovers and meets second boy who seems to have suffered the same fate. Small world!
 
So begins Upstream Colour, a film in which fathoming what is going on is like trying to build a calculator out of blancmange: there’s a big mess at the end and you’re still no closer to working out the answer.
 
Kris (Amy Seimetz) is the unlucky lass whose night out ends with her being held captive by a softly spoken crook (Thiago Martins) who convinces her to fashion endless paper chains and not to look directly at him because his head is made of the same substance as the sun. On the page, it all sounds a bit Derren Brown, although the film-maker Shane Carruth’s tight grasp of mood keeps any levity at bay. (The oppressive, disorientating tone makes it feel as though Kris’s tormentor has drugged both us and her.) While we may not know what’s happening, the look and sound of the movie ensure we won’t mistake it for a laugh riot.
 
Carruth has cast his net wide to create this effect. For the clean, frosted images – each frame looks as if it has just been removed from the icebox – he has turned to the cinematographer Shane Carruth. For that sadsinister score, full of strangled yearning, there must have been only one name on his wishlist: Shane Carruth. And when it comes to editing, who else could he have hoped for to splice together this narrative jigsaw puzzle but Shane Carruth? Thank goodness he was available, is all I can say.
 
One person’s control freak is another person’s perfectionist and even those who don’t enjoy Upstream Colour cannot deny that Carruth’s vision is original and singleminded. Or that he is a fine and guarded actor. Yes, he’s in the film as well as all over it. Still, it’s reassuring to see he’s taking things easy this time. On his 2004 debut, Primer, he wrote, acted, directed, produced, scored, edited, took on sound and production design and – rumour has it – baked the most darling little cupcakes for his colleagues with their names piped on the top.
 
Playing Jeff, who becomes involved with Kris after her release from captivity, Carruth exudes that charismatic shiftiness usually seen only in handsome, amoral ad execs in metropolitan singles bars. As Jeff and Kris become closer, an intriguing synthesis occurs between them: they start parroting one another’s anecdotes and disputing which of them had first dibs on their memories. This is symptomatic of the way the script is structured. It proceeds not so much by cause and effect as by intimation.
 
It isn’t giving too much away to say that the movie is a circle-of-life story that begins and ends in the soil. There are Cronenbergian scenes that touch on biological horror but the resounding impression is that Carruth is trying to break loose from conventional storytelling templates and convey information instead in some amorphous, intuitive fashion. Where the maggots and the orchids come into this, not to mention the pigs (lots of pigs), I wouldn’t want to say, partly because I’m still unclear.
 
No one who saw Primer, a low-key but highly cerebral time-travel thriller that won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, will be surprised that Upstream Colour provides an intellectual workout.
 
Primer was one of those debuts, like David Lynch’s Eraserhead or Darren Aronofsky’s π, that felt thrillingly unprecedented; its tangled science-fiction plot was played out against a creepily bland canvas of storage facilities, crummy offices and suburban kitchens. Keeping track of it was no cakewalk. But it had wit. There was a major and memorable release of pressure for the puzzled viewer when one of the time-travelling protagonists turned to the other and said, “Are you hungry? I haven’t eaten since later this afternoon.”
 
And it was fun. Upstream Colour scorns such fripperies and is slightly the poorer for it. Its enigmas will not harm any chances of longevity. (One can imagine college clubs being established solely to debate its meanings.) But the danger with a style that is this closed-off is that it can repel our pleasure as well as our understanding.
Shane Carruth and Amy Seimetz in Upstream Colour.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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Commons confidential: The nuclear option

Hunt's six day week, Cameron's missing tweet and growing tensions within Labour.

It’s UN blue helmet time for the deputy leader Tom Watson as he struggles to keep the peace between Labour’s warring factions.

The burly veteran of the uprising that toppled Tony Blair is brokering an armed truce. His strategy, I’m told, is to persuade both sides to hold fire. Rebels remain in the bunker and Corbynistas are moving to change party rules. Either pulling a trigger would send the other nuclear.

Tensions between the Corbyn and McDonnell camps fuel rumours the veggie Jeremy may later step aside for carnivorous John. Watson, says my snout, believes Labour would be ungovernable if MPs locked the left out of any contest.

John Mann, caught glancing to check whether cameras were rolling ahead of his Brawl in the Hall with Red Ken, has posturing form. The Bassetlaw bruiser and his former colleague Denis MacShane earned blistering rebukes for “glib evidence” and “appearing supremely confident of the rightness of their positions” three years ago as witnesses at a failed employment tribunal that attempted to find “institutional anti-Semitism” in a University and College Union-backed Israel boycott.

The 45-page judgment noted: “When it came to anti-Semitism in the context of debate about the Middle East, [Mann] announced: ‘It’s clear to me where the line is . . .’ but unfortunately eschewed the opportunity to locate it for us. Both parliamentarians clearly enjoyed making speeches. Neither seemed at ease with the idea of being required to answer a question not to his liking.”

Gobby Mann and Shoot-From-the-Lip Livingstone were made for each other.

Many thanks to the reader with a long memory who reminded me this column noted in June 2009 how Jeremy Hunt was a six-day weeker, after his Surrey office informed Haslemere Rugby Club he didn’t work Sundays. Now he’s Health Secretary, screaming about a seven-day NHS in England, I’d be happy to update his availability should Hunt wish to get in touch. Emails and calls are answered all weekend.

Labour holds no monopoly on anti-Semitism. A former Labour MP recalled asking an esteemed Tory grandee, still an MP, over dinner whether Livingstone should have apologised for likening a Jewish reporter on the London Evening Standard to a concentration camp guard. “Oh no,” sneered the prominent Con, “the Hebs are getting above themselves.” The term “Hebs” is, apparently, posh for Hebrews. You learn something nasty every day.

Imagine the tweet the experts at No 10 could have prevented the football-crazy Cameron from sending: “As a keen Aston Ham fan I congratulate Leicester Town on winning the FA Cup.”

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred