Whether Shane Carruth's magnificent "Upstream Color" reinvents the movies, as our film-critic compatriot Michael Atkinson has claimed, it certainly makes one ask just what exactly defines cinema. In a love story that avoids the usual trappings of story -- history, continuity, clear motivations -- it nonetheless locates a sublime distillation point at which it still infects both the heart and brain.
There is no small amount of symbolism -- a kind of guardian angel/researcher (Andrew Sensenig), who keeps a pig farm, may also be a stand-in for God. But it's uncanny that Terrence Malick's "To the Wonder" should open today as well, because the thing Malick fails at doing -- creating a new kind of structure -- is exactly where Carruth succeeds, to an extraordinary and deeply affecting degree.
"Upstream Color" is profoundly allegorical -- one can see the researcher, called the Sampler, as a corporate archvillain, or a deity. He saves Kris (the radiant Amy Seimetz) when she's infected with a hybrid Guinea worm that steals her memory. (She also has a past that swirls about her like a toxic mist. ) Her romance with Jeff (Carruth) is an emotional obstacle course, each leaping the other's baggage, striving for connections -- something that the director (of 2004's brilliantly elusive "Primer") is striving to make as well throughout the film. But he also shows an emotional richness that belies that lack of hard-core detail.
The film's ultimate impact is achieved partly through performance (Carruth and Seimetz are both great) and also through a visceral, rhythmic appeal to our natural curiosity and learned response to cinematic stimuli. Carruth taps into something that transcends a need to be told things, and taps into our need, and desire, to feel things.
PLOT Souls connect in a world poised against them. Unrated
CAST Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig
BOTTOM LINE Elliptical and utterly fascinating adventure in cinema, one that defies simple explanations, but worms its way into the brain.