A Painting Is Gone and So Is His Memory
Before the New York City premiere of Trance, director Danny Boyle introduced the film, flanked by stars Rosario Dawson and Vincent Cassel (the other, James McAvoy, is performing Macbeth in London), and said he wanted to “apologize that this isn’t a life-affirming film like 127 Hours.” It wasn’t necessarily an indictment about morally corrupt movie plots, but it did seem like he was hedging his bets for a corporate audience maybe eager to feel enriched. It’s hard to blame them, even when referring to the heroine existential adventures in his Trainspotting or the haunting portrayals in 28 Days Later, films whose cores remain positive even in their darkest light. For this slight change in Boyle’s content however, he still infuses his crafty, colorful signature with the same zeal and polarizing power.
Trance has that engaging appeal to it, a thriller heist film that cares more about the human’s psychological tendencies than delivering intricate robbery schemes. McAvoy plays Simon, an art auctioneer who decides to join a group of thieves led by Franck (Vincent Cassell) to steal a Goya painting. Things go haywire in the process. Motivations possibly skewed, Simon (we learn he’s a deadly gambler) disrupts the heist and Franck whacks him in the head for it. Little does he know the mind bending implications that will have, especially when he opens up the sealed casing and finds the canvas missing.
Simon knows where it is, but he can’t remember where thanks to that bump on his head. That leaves Franck to pry it out of him, including some graphic displays of torture, but he quickly realizes inflicting pain can’t tap a mental block. So they enlist a hypnotist played daringly by Rosario Dawson named Elizabeth Lamb, a mysterious character who quickly perceives Simon’s threatened position and enters the ring with Franck’s group of thieves. Memories aren’t forgotten, they’re just trapped in an iron cage she says, and a simple mental reconnaissance becomes a complex, multi-layered spiral into the depths of psychological distortion.
Boyle translates this quick turn into cerebral chaos with his dramatic visual movements and pumping techno soundtrack, which sometimes enhance his kinetic frame and other times attempt to fill its less frenetic voids. Simon does a similar thing, filling in his memories under hypnosis with visions of Elizabeth who has crept under both his and Franck’s skin in haunting, seductive fashion. In the midst of this lab experiment and hypnotic conditioning, Boyle captures these self-reflexive sensibilities within the gritty London environment, observing his characters’ pensive and fragile states looking through television screens, mirrors, and windows, their own reflections.
Like Inception and Total Recall, much of the film becomes a journey through delineating reality from dream from hypnotic hallucination. But as much as these trippy flashbacks and alternate realities repackage the above films, Trance actually leans heavily towards Steven Soderbergh’s last feature Side Effects. The mind-bending twists, the violent melodrama, the potential to mine the classics of Western art, which includes a soulful Rembrandt stare, quickly boils down to the more simplistic desires of love lust, money, and revenge.
It might not work as well without its trio of actors. Rosario Dawson takes over the film from her sturdy perch in her opposing therapeutic chairs, even more so when she starts walking towards the camera nude. Cassel, with that omnipresent deviancy and menacing hungry look swaps unsettling interactions with McAvoy, whose character also slowly devolves into a state of unbridled rage. Boyle, with writers John Aheare and John Hodges, knows how to shape these diverging personas and twists them so that a mild auctioneer becomes a monstrous mess.
But in these types of films there is little time for connection or empathy with anyone in our presence. Trance is properly titled because it is, in the moment, entrancing, and casts you under its hypnotic spell, but it is just as easily broken, and the whirlwind of an experience quickly fades from imprinting memory. I’m not sure questions of confused plot points are necessary qualifiers for a deft, psychological film to be considered great, but Boyle at least makes sure to throw us hints and clues the best he can.
I think a better film is hiding here that has the power to jump from someone’s forgetful short-term memory to a more pensive, lasting one. But, it’s nice to be hypnotized by a movie for a while, even if it isn’t life affirming.