Upstream Colour is an exhilarating puzzle-box of a film, presenting a dreamy, affecting experience entirely through the language of cinema. When you watch it first time, some details will almost without doubt remain tantalising elusive and vague. But that initial mysteriousness also effectively supplements the film's generous thematic and emotional core. When you sit down to tease out the lingering questions & ambiguities, rather than fall apart you suddenly realise just how deep the film's reservoirs of intrigue, intelligence and formal inventiveness actually are.
Carruth's lo-fi first film Primer earned both praise and scorn for its unforgivingly complex portrayal of time travel. Casually shifting through multiple timelines while only providing the viewer with hints of how to work out, it drove countless viewers to the Internet to seek out the many fan attempts at explaining its snaking complexities. While it was hardly accessible, Primer's proudest achievement was its unfaltering, meticulous internal logic and design. Obviously it was science-fiction, but grounded in a world near identical to our own. Carruth was in complete control, and he challenged the viewer to interpret and understand the rules.
Upstream Colour is also dictated by very particular, tightly defined internal rule set. The narrative is more straightforward and linear (naturally lacking the criss-crossing structure of its predecessor) but in its way it's also stranger. We're still in hard science-fiction territory, in a world of telepathic identity theft and emotional connections between humans and animals. I won't dwell on the details too much (they've been covered well elsewhere), but it's presents fantastical ideas in a militantly down-to-earth manner, with even the film's imagined science only slightly stretching real-world credibility.
If your smarter than I, then perhaps you'll figure out all the plots unusual characters and developments on your own. Personally, I got the core ideas but was left wondering about what role many scenes and individuals played in the grander picture - the pig farming musician served particularly. Although details remained uncertain, I was still deeply drawn into Carruth's world. It's an immensely atmospheric film, enhanced by meticulous visuals and sound design. The relationship between the two protagonists is a deeply moving, intense one. It's a remarkable sci-fi love story, comparable to something like Solaris or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: two people drawn closer and closer together by an impossible to articulate spiritual and emotional connection. They effectively mind-meld, bringing their relationship to a impossibly intimate levels, while also experiencing the primal, animalistic reactions of the pigs they're initially unaware they also share a connection with.
Indeed, the grandest theme of the film comes through its portrayal of the natural world and, to use a cliché, the circle of life. Carruth is like a secular Malick, discovering transcendence in the deeply forged connections between people, plants, animals and everything else. Everything is linked by a glorious natural order, but it's also a film about free agency and compassion. It could be read as preachy environmentalism, but Carruth is far from a preacher. He provides the evidence, but asks us to engage with it on our own terms.
The director - who is some multi-tasker: writing, directing, filming, acting, composing, producing etc... - avoids exposition and explanations to the point where some will damn Upstream Colour as oblique and pointlessly confusing (accusations of pretentiousness can't be far behind either). And yes, the first go round might leave more questions than answers. But it's immediately obvious the wealth of fascinating material the film offers. Personally speaking, I felt a strong reaction to it even without fully comprehending everything that was happening on a purely literal level. There's the strong argument that not everything needs explaining, anyway - the mystery more than suffices. But when I did choose to sit down and consider it more, my own favourable reaction to it was only confirmed by personal reflection and the thoughts and observations of others (how appropriate given the film's themes)
What makes Carruth different than most directors is that he understands cinema so deeply and passionately. At times, the film is near silent (musical score aside), instead relying on camera work and editing to tell the story. Thematic links are hinted at through individual edits, with ideas flowing through image progression rather than the characters lecturing us. If it alienates us to some degree, it's only because full understanding requires us to somewhat reevaluate our relationship with everything on screen. Answers are not passively provided for us, as Carruth is more interested in engaging us in a sort of intellectual dialogue. Everything we need to understand is embedded in the film, whether that's through the explanatory prologue or transitional choices. We need to rewire our brains a bit and understand the film through its very form - a feat only a the great few have successfully achieved since the silent masters experimented with wholly visual storytelling (in that sense, he's a bit like Tati). Carruth uses in-film dialogue intelligently and music carefully, of course - these are intrinsic parts of moviemaking just as much as the visuals. The auteur - and that word is wholly appropriate for a vision so singular - rarely loses control of any of it.
In a way, that mysterious musician is an analogue for Carruth himself - an artist trying to create something unique through sometimes incomprehensible, overwhelming life experiences both shared and individual. The pig farmer uses music to try and capture it, but Carruth uses cinema. The results are frequently electrifying.