Shane Carruth, 96 mins, 12A

Jonathan Romney on Upstream Colour: Come on in, the water is dazzling


You think cinema has nothing new to say? Then plunge into this work of exhilarating originality

I've been reviewing films on these pages for 12 years, and this is my last column in this slot – but in all that time, I don't think I've seen anything as gloriously perplexing as this week's release. I've dutifully watched the good, the bad and the ugly – and all too rarely, the downright bizarre. But it's a pleasure to sign off with a film as authentically and exuberantly strange as Upstream Colour. I'm tempted to say that Shane Carruth's film is unclassifiable, but that's not strictly true. You could classify it as science fiction, love story, free-form film poem or philosophical reverie, but none of these tell the whole story. Suffice to say, it ain't Pacific Rim, and you should go and revel in it on its own intoxicating terms.

The ultimate go-it-alone indie operator, Carruth wrote, produced, directed, photographed and co-edited Upstream Colour, as well as writing the music and co-starring. One of the most singular figures in US cinema, Carruth made a mind-bending debut in 2004 called Primer, a no-budget, time-machine story that looped itself into vertiginous narrative fractals, and sparked a whole online subculture of explanatory diagrams.

Radically scrambled as Primer was, it made perfect sense within the logic of time-travel narrative. The much more fluid Upstream Colour has no such familiar points of reference, and seems to have burst into the world fully formed in its bizarre beauty. It starts with images of orchids, worms and a powder that apparently induces telepathic behaviour. A woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) is then force-fed a worm by a man listed in the credits only as The Thief (Thiago Martins), who uses mind control to steal all her money. Unable to remember her ordeal, the nevertheless damaged Kris builds a new life for herself, then cautiously starts a relationship with Jeff (Carruth himself), who's lost his job after being caught embezzling, and now works under the radar while living in anonymous hotel rooms.

The suggestion is that he too has had his life stolen – otherwise, why would he and Kris have the same mysterious mark on their ankles? Keep an eye on these tiny incidentals, and be sure to watch Upstream Colour on the big screen – it pays off when it comes to spotting the fine detail.

Also involved in the story – and it is a story, although it may seem like a free flow of sounds and images – is a man known only as The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), who combines a career in pig farming with a sideline as an experimental sound recordist, gleaning sounds from the environment (the bass throb of speakers, the scratched surface of waterpipes ...) and turning them into musique concrète. Since that is pretty much how Carruth composed his own score for the film, it's tempting to say that the Sampler, who directly affects the couple's fates, is the figure of the director in the film – although I'd be surprised if even the industrious Carruth had time for pig farming on top of everything else.

Meanwhile, the pigs play an essential part, as do paper chains, as do copies of Thoreau's 19th-century manifesto on ruralism and self-sufficiency, Walden. Just don't ask me how they fit together – see the film and construct your own paper chain of meaning.

For all its elusiveness, Upstream Colour is remarkably affecting. That's partly because it signifies so richly on every level – in its labyrinthine editing patterns, in the beauty of Carruth's camerawork, in the eerie hum and whirr of his music. And it's also partly because you believe in the love story, thanks to Seimetz's finely vibrating sensitivity and Carruth's own more spiky humanity. It's one of the oddest romances in cinema, a truly avant-garde valentine.

Naysayers insist that it's too late to expect anything new from cinema, but Upstream Colour gives me faith that the art form can always be reinvented – sometimes out of little more than the irreducible difference of a film-maker's imagination.

There's another exhilaratingly different film out this week, and I'll give you this one for free – Paolo Sorrentino's delirious Fellini tribute The Great Beauty, an Aperol spritz of a Roman fantasia.

So long, then, and thanks for your interest, support and sometimes hostility over the years (some of you really took up the cudgels to defend Happy Feet). As they used to say in the movie business, see you in the ninepenny stalls.


Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?