Upstream Colour (2013) is Shane Carruth’s second feature film, produced almost ten years after his sci-fi cult hit Primer (2004). For anyone who has seen Primer, and either loved it or loathed it (it seems to be like Marmite in this way), Carruth repeats his one man show of producing, directing, shooting, lighting, composing and starring in with Upstream Colour.
Unlike, Primer, which was a strange experience which ultimately left me very confused but still wanting to become a scientist for real, Colour was an incredibly relaxed and cathartic experience. Whilst Primer had me scratching my head and struggling to understand the layers of time travel, Colour held me in a trance-like state, enjoying every moment*.
This is not to say that Upstream Colour is any easier to follow than Primer, or has more of a straightforward narrative. When broken down to the bare storyline, Colour follows a three part continuous life cycle of a blue coloured substance. The substance (as the audience follow it) is found in particular plants, from which a character named ‘The Thief’ extracts maggots which are infected with the substance. The maggots are then transferred to humans, by means of force. The substance makes the human victim heavily susceptible to suggestion and manipulation – our victim in Colour is Kris (Amy Seimetz). The Thief uses Kris’s malleable state to force her into signing away the equity on her house, and some other valuable belongings. Once Kris breaks the hypnotic state, she realises that she has been left penniless, jobless and, understandably, she experiences a great deal of post traumatic stress from the ordeal. The maggot however, is still in Kris’ body – and is removed by a pig farmer, who implants the now fully grown worm into one of his pigs.
As Kris attempts to continue with her life, we simultaneously see that the substance is passed into the pig’s offspring, which are in turn horrifically murdered by the pig farmer who throws the piglets into a nearby river. The rotting piglets exude the substance, which flows downstream and consequently feeds into the growing orchids. If you are still with me, then congratulations, it certainly isn’t the easiest plot to follow.
Personally, on a first viewing of Upstream Colour, the narrative didn’t trouble me as much as I had been made to believe that it would. Throughout the film, Carruth limits the dialogue between characters (for about the first thirty minutes, only four or five lines are spoken) which forces the viewer to make connections that are not always self evident at first. The film requires perseverance, and a certain level of commitment if you want to be rewarded in the end.
However, it is not the ‘less is more’ cinematography or the abstract narrative that truly grabbed my interest whilst watching Upstream Colour. Whilst there are many layers open to analysis within the film – Walden, connection with nature, God complex etc – it is primarily through Carruth’s choice to make Kris our protagonist, her wavering femininity and the allusions to gender within manipulated/abusive circumstances that I will be discussing here.
Kris as the female protagonist
We are introduced to Kris at her workplace. She is an animator, we assume, and she is clearly good at her job. She wears a suit, she wears her hair long and she has a strong feminine aesthetic. We are not given much information about Kris at all, and are limited to almost purely visual storytelling until Kris is abducted from a club and forced to inhale the worm containing the sedative substance. Immediately, this is a situation that viewers are familiar with. A young woman abducted from a nightclub by an unknown man. Whilst the abduction/rape story is something we expect, it soon becomes clear that her captor (The Thief) does not want to inflict physical/sexual abuse on Kris, that this narrative is very much Kris’ story and there is little danger of her being ‘fridged’ (being killed off to enhance the male protagonist story). As we begin to identify with Kris, her situation feels uncomfortable. She is subdued, and manipulated into letting The Thief take almost her whole life away from her. Even though, at times, we don’t necessarily trust Kris on her memories – her and Jeff mix up their childhoods, Kris has no recollection of her abduction – I would maintain that Kris is the single protagonist whom we trust throughout the film.
Despite Jeff’s appearance in the film, Colour follows Kris’ journey alone. When she meets Jeff on the subway, his mannerisms and stalkerish behaviour encourage Kris alongside viewers not to trust him. Kris’ trajectory is resolved, the idea of Kris as the sole independent protagonist is confirmed, by the ending of the film. Jeff is not seen, and it is just Kris with the baby piglet. As the piglet can be seen as Kris’ surrogate child (due to her connection with the mother pig), we could even conclude that Kris has surpassed the need for Jeff or a working womb to be able to conceive (we are told earlier that Kris is unable to carry a baby to term).
Gender & Abuse
There are two abusive narratives within Colour. The most obvious is the abduction of Kris by The Thief, the second is shown through Kris and Jeff’s relationship. Clearly, Kris’ abduction is overtly abusive – she is drugged, starved, manipulated and left for dead. The entire abduction section of the film is so uncomfortable and traumatic that it is only in hindsight that we realise it is only about twenty minutes long in the running time. Consequently, it is Kris’ recovery and relationship with Jeff which fills most the screen time. Their encounter and subsequent affair can be seen as a mirror for her experience as a captive by The Thief. After their original meeting, it is clear that they have a deeper connection and behave almost as if they already know each other. We later discover that this is because of their connection to the respective pigs and also due to their both undergoing the same abduction. However, it is Jeff who pursues Kris, and there are moments where he seems to scare her – behaving like a stalker and demanding that she call him. He comes across almost threatening, and at this point we can’t be sure that he is a good person for Kris to know. As the only previous male character is The Thief, we fear for Kris as a vulnerable woman. Kris eventually gives in to his advances, and the two of them pursue a romantic, tender relationship.
I do genuinely feel that the two of them have chemistry, that Jeff truly cares for Kris but there are further behavioural patterns that continually hint at Kris being manipulated again. At one point Jeff forcibly tells Kris ‘I’m going to marry you’. This line echoes the sentiment of actions being done to Kris, instead of her instigating or having ownership over events that occur – a trope that often surrounds female characters. Similarly, Jeff discovers that Kris has a repressed memory of the entire text of Walden and that he can coax the text from her by feeding her lines. This reading occurs in conjunction with Kris diving in a swimming pool to retrieve rocks from the bottom – an emotional and physical response to the baby piglets drowning in the river. It is not clear if Kris knows she is spouting repressed pieces of text, but the way Jeff draws the lines out of her feels manipulatory, and is reminiscent of The Thief repeating lines of dialogue for Kris to remember.
Femininity vs Masculinity
One of the most interesting aspects to Upstream Colour is the relationship characterized by Jeff and Kris. Both characters deal with their experiences in very gendered ways, Jeff exhibiting typically male characteristics, Kris exhibiting typically feminine attributes. As we only observe Kris’ abduction story, we can safely assume that Jeff’s is similar due to the way they interact and their emotional connection to the pigs. Kris appears vulnerable, but emotionally open to Jeff – showing him all of her medication and announcing that she is mentally unwell. Kris comes to rely on Jeff quickly, as we expect from typical male-female relationships on-screen. Jeff on the other hand, despite being initially persistent with Kris, is guarded about his experience. He lies to Kris regarding his job and income, not revealing himself to her until he really has to. Jeff displays masculine tendencies – the breadwinner, emotionally unavailable and Kris’ carer. Equally, when the piglets are drowned, Kris turns her anger inwards and ends up hurting herself whereas Jeff (in a display of testosterone fuelled masculinity) ends up beating up a co-worker. In this respect, our preconceived notions of gender are not challenged; when both characters are in states of emotional distress, they revert to feminine and masculine coded actions in line with their gender.
I also feel that what it means to be feminine is challenged/supported constantly throughout the film and ultimately portrayed through Kris. In Colour, she undergoes a ‘de-feminized’ transformation in the second part of the film. Visually, she cuts her hair into a short/pixie cut and assumes casual clothing in contrast to her feminine office wear at the beginning. There is also the revelation that Kris cannot bear children. It could be argued that Kris’ childlessness connotes her increasing lack of femininity – that she can’t truly be a woman without motherhood. The unravelling of Kris’ mental state after this point in the film seems to support this, but I can’t help feeling that conclusion of the film points us in another direction. Whilst it is true that Kris achieves motherhood through the piglet, Kris also commands control of the farm, and ultimately her life. Through the act of killing The Farmer, Kris gains her identity back and above all, her happiness. Both of these are paramount to her femininity or motherhood, and she achieves all of those qualities by killing the man who she believes is responsible for the trauma she has faced.
So overall, Kris manages to balance the forced female attribute of motherhood but rebuff it by taking the farm and her piglet by herself. Jeff plays no part in this section of the film. Upstream Colour is soulful, strange and beautiful and Kris is a strong, well rounded protagonist who successfully regains control of her life – for herself, by herself. I loved every minute of it.
* For the record, I did enjoy Primer I just need to watch it again with this diagram