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

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The paintings designed to better sculpture

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour, as a new exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery shows.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle