By Ashley Clark
Dir. Danny Boyle, U.K., Fox Searchlight
London resident Danny Boyle has manipulated the cityâ€™s image in a variety of intriguing ways over the years, and in so doing highlighted its malleability as a canvas for popular entertainment. In 2002â€™s apocalyptic horror 28 Days Later, he shot it with a muted palette, emptied it of people, and foregrounded recognizable landmarks to provoke awestruck recognition. Ten years later, he furnished the capital with an elaborate Olympics opening ceremony, which made an international show of celebrating London as colorful, vibrant, and full. It was a spectacle as floridly imaginative as his most populist cinema, and elevated him close to national treasure status. Now, in super-glossy neonoir Trance (based on a feature-length TV movie from 2001), as if to kick back against the goodwill generated from that event, heâ€™s stripped the city of soul and character, dreaming up a slick, near-dystopian network of swish high-rise bars, moodily lit car lots, and spartan apartments with more mirrors than windows. In interviews, Boyle has referred to Trance (completed quickly during breaks from Boyleâ€™s punishing Olympics schedule) as the opening ceremonyâ€™s â€śevil twin,â€ť an overspill of his id, and a purging of something rotten from his system. Accordingly, this London is an apt landscape upon which to project a tortuousâ€”and rather nastyâ€”tale of fractured personae and emotional violence.
The London-as-unfamiliar-landscape effect is amplified by the casting of three non-English actorsâ€”a Scot (James McAvoy), an American (Rosario Dawson), and a Frenchman (Vincent Cassel)â€”in the lead roles. McAvoyâ€™s Simon is an auction-house employee acting as inside man on the heist of a $27 million masterwork by Goya. The raid appears to have gone swimmingly, but Simonâ€™s associate Franck (Cassel) discovers the painting has gone missing mid-heist. After sustaining a head injury, Simon awakes with no memory of where he stored it. Frank and his gang torture Simon for the information without success, so they take him to a hypnotherapistâ€”Dawsonâ€™s eerily composed Dr. Elizabeth Lambâ€”in the hope that she will recover Simonâ€™s memory and, subsequently, the painting. Simon poses as a man who has mislaid his car keys, but Elizabeth quickly sees through the ruse and soon attempts to cut herself in on the deal, in addition to beginning a relationship with Franck. With the Goya established as MacGuffin, a bizarre, violent love triangle ensues (in reality, as well as inside the charactersâ€™ heads) until a 180-degree plot rotation undermines everything thatâ€™s gone before, essentially turning the film into Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind mixed with any number of half-remembered erotic thrillers of the 1990s.
Trance winds up in preposterous territory, but begins promisingly; the opening five minutes set the scene with immersive panache. McAvoy, channelling the light smarm and Scottish lilt of Ewan McGregor, is our classically unreliable narrator, walking and talking us through the details of the heist with a cheeky, Scorsese-esque to-camera spiel. As the plot gets increasingly convoluted, the specter of Christopher Nolan looms; sadly, weâ€™re reminded more of the airless, â€śinside-the-mindâ€ť narrative constriction of Inception than the moral fluidity of Memento. Nolanâ€™s U.S. debut employed an obfuscatory structure to come to the conclusionâ€”through violating our trust in the protagonistâ€”that revenge was pointless. Conversely, the arms-length Trance increasingly gives us only the impression of being subjected to a distinctly effortful magic trick by a talented showman. Some critics have posited Trance as a return to the territory and form of Boyleâ€™s debut, Shallow Grave, but, though similarly noirish in intent and sharing a screenwriter (John Hodge), it sorely lacks the formerâ€™s mischievous implicative quality (at every step, the audience is invited to ask: â€śWhat would I do?â€ť, whereas Trance can only encourage,â€śWhat is going on, and do I really care?â€ť). It also lacks the mordant humour of Shallow Grave, ultimately sharing the self-seriousness of Steven Soderberghâ€™s recent Side Effects, a film that asked us to keep a straight face as the trashy erotic thriller tropes and hairpin plot turns piled up.
Tranceâ€™s most intriguing element is its aforementioned imagining of London as a Ballardian shadow space, with clichĂ©d landmark locations carefully excised from the frame. Boyle has claimed, harking back to the voiceover at the beginning of Edinburgh-set Shallow Grave (â€śThis could be any cityâ€”theyâ€™re all the sameâ€ť), that he wanted his London to be mythic and anonymous, and to a large extent he succeeds, boiling the landscape down to a handful of modish locations often attractively lit in blues, oranges, and reds. Yet this sense of a remote cityscape is somewhat undermined by the filmâ€™s unnecessary formal hyperactivityâ€”the blank mood is frequently undone by the directorâ€™s â€ślook at me!â€ť showmanship. Boyleâ€™s distinguishing feature as a filmmaker has always been kineticism regardless of thematic contentâ€”from the opening moments of Shallow Grave (apposite) to the relentless whiz-bang pyrotechnics of 127 Hours (maddeningly forced). Trance finds Boyle, alongside regular cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, in full-on caffeinated mode. There are frame blurs, wobble-cams, black-and-white inserts, color filters, upside-down shots, even an interior view of Vincent Cassel flying down a trash chute. Dutch angles can be startling when used sparingly; when they become the norm, theyâ€™re enervating (in Trance, there are more Dutch angles than an Amsterdam corner store). The visuals are complemented by an assaultive soundtrack of ear-splitting techno, which occasionally gives way to dreamy chill-out music. However, though often unpleasant to the ear, the music conjures a curiously dated, nineties feel that melds with ultra-contemporary references in the mise-en-scĂ¨ne (iPads, smartphones) to lend unexpected ballast to Boyleâ€™s vision of London as a sci-fi dystopia without concrete temporal roots.
Bombast aside, Trance may well be talked about in years to come for one moment in particular. Eager to convince Simon she really understands him (in order for her to manipulate him later), Elizabeth departs to the bathroom to shave her pubis, then emerges, full-frontal, causing him to weep with joy. Itâ€™s a concession to Simonâ€™s passionate embrace, earlier alluded to in the script, of a pre-Goya era in art history in which a woman's totally nude form (meaning no hair) represented her angelic perfection. Yet itâ€™s an odd, barely justifiable and borderline-laughable moment which best exemplifies the filmâ€™s questionable sexual politics. In keeping with neo-noir tradition (think Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction) Lamb is revealed to be sexually assertive in her manipulation of male figures, but is undermined by the filmâ€™s heedless visual objectification of her, and the overall shallowness of the story. We see Dawson totally nude twice, whereas Cassel and McAvoyâ€™s cocks remain coyly blocked in their sex scenes. Itâ€™s a common cinematic double standard, but proves especially irksome in this instance, given the context of the feministic power-grab that the script has so pointedly set-up; itâ€™s female empowerment as enacted through the prism of unchecked male fantasy. There are also hints of an even nastier sexual subtext: the single identifiably black male character, Nate (Danny Sapani), is revealed to be a rapist-in-waiting, and has his erect penis graphically blown away by a smirking, gun-toting Simon. Itâ€™s a gloatingly gratuitous moment that ushers in an unwelcomeâ€”if perhaps unintentionalâ€”reconfiguration of the horribly outmoded â€śblack bruteâ€ť stereotype, followed by his subsequent castration by the white protector. If the film were interested in anything other than surface fireworks, such unpalatable detours might prove more bearable.
The deliberately shallow, conceptually tricksy, and unremittingly cold Trance is presumably exactly the type of unpleasant film Boyleâ€”eager to temporarily retreat from the relentless jollity of the Olympicsâ€”wanted to make. But is it fun for us? Its final words are, â€śDo you want to remember or do you want to forget?â€ť Itâ€™s a brave move on the directorâ€™s behalf to leave an audience with such a question after having subjected them to a bilious box of tricks for 101 increasingly difficult-to-swallow minutes.