If you haven’t yet seen ‘Trance’, GO AND SEE IT. And then come back and read this. ūüôā

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Danny Boyle¬†is one of my favourite directors. He grew up in East London, as did I, and I’ve found his work has always been intriguing if nothing else. I’m a massive fan of ‘Shallow Grave‘ and ‘Trainspotting‘ and also really enjoyed ‘127 Hours‘ and ‘Slumdog Millionaire‘. I wish I had been able to see his ‘Frankenstein‘, but alas t’was not to be. He takes advantage of cinematic and theatrical technique to engage and confuse us, and I think at his best, his directing really cements excellent scripts and performances by diverse actors. I was incredibly¬†excited to see his latest creation: ‘Trance‘ and for me, it didn’t disappoint.

I know ‘Trance’ isn’t a traditional Sci-Fi film, it’s actually billed as a Crime/Drama/Thriller, which I think is accurate. That being said, it’s crux themes are alternate reality and mind control, which are primary elements of Sci-Fi culture. It was also written by Joe Ahearne, who has worked on several fantasy and Sci-Fi TV shows including Doctor Who, and Glaswegian screenwriter John Hodge, who is a long-term collaborator of Boyle’s.

The plot revolves around Simon [McAvoy], a seemingly docile art auctioneer who becomes embroiled with a criminal gang headed by Franck [Cassel] who then enlist the help of hypnotherapist Elizabeth [Dawson]. 

Simon opens the film with a pithy speech about the muscle and nerve it takes to steal a painting in the modern day, with all the¬†surveillance¬†and security measures put in place by top auction houses. During the bidding on Francisco Goya’s ‘Witches in the Air‘ [1798], which sells for ¬£25 million, a gas attack is instrumented by Franck’s team and the place evacuated. According to protocol, Simon takes the painting from front of house to a briefcase in the storeroom and proceeds to the safe deposit. He is intercepted by Franck but tasers him, and Franck retaliates by knocking Simon out. In the confusion of the attack, Franck and his team escape with the briefcase. They soon discover they have been duped; the Goya isn’t in the briefcase. Meanwhile, Simon is in hospital recovering from a severe head injury.¬†

When he returns home, he discovers Franck’s team have ransacked his flat and car in search of the painting, to no avail. Later, Franck’s men torture Simon to try and discover the location of the artwork. It becomes clear Simon is suffering amnesia and Franck asks him to choose a hypnotherapist in hopes of finding the lost memory. Simon chooses Elizabeth Lamb and Franck’s team send him there with the false problem of lost car keys. Elizabeth’s influence over Simon is clear from the offset and after she realises he is in trouble with Franck’s gang, Elizabeth negotiates to get in on the deal. She wants an equal share in the profit once the painting is found, but also makes a point that she must be an equal partner to be taken seriously by Simon and forces the others to expose their weaknesses. Suspicion and mistrust is rife within the group and the constant pursuit of the truth about the day of the theft seems almost impossible to recover.¬†

After several more¬†deceptions, which are really too complicated to explain and wouldn’t do justice to how well it is portrayed on screen, we discover the truth:¬†
Simon was Elizabeth’s client after beginning therapy to help him cure his gambling addiction. They began a relationship, however he began to deify her, become obsessive and finally she left. Simon refused to move on and became an aggressive stalker, and after receiving no support from the law Elizabeth decided to pervert Simon’s therapy and¬†suppress his memories of her. It is shown he is part of the population minority that is very¬†suggestible, and she plants a singular purpose: to steal the Goya painting for her, as a strange form of compensation for all the pain he’s inflicted on her.

In the climactic scene, Elizabeth prevents Franck’s death at Simon’s hand and Simon meets his end just at the moment he remembers the planted suggestion to steal the painting. The film ends with Franck in his swanky apartment receiving a package from Elizabeth. She is now far away, as she tells him in a swish iPad video, with the Goya. She explains how much the painting means to her now and how she could never return it or sell it, and hopes Franck will one day find her. Elizabeth gives him the option to enter a trance and remove all memory meeting her, and he hovers over the screen in an ‘Inception‘-esque ambiguous cut to black.

The actors really deserve praise I think, especially the leads Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel and James McAvoy¬†<3. I thought their characters were well written and performed to show diversity and depth. All of them were complex, made untrustworthy and unpredictable by their situation. I was surprised to hear Michael Fassbender, another particular favourite of mine, was cast as Franck before he had to drop out of the project. It also has a bit part played by Tuppence Middleton who was in Episode 2 of Series 2 of ‘Black Mirror‘, but I think that was a piece of trivia only I enjoyed.¬†

I admire the film’s team for creating a strong female lead. I find it pretty offensive to call her a ‘femme fatale’, which Boyle himself does, because it reduces her to a movie trope. At times she is horrifically objectified by both the camera and the other characters. She is a victim of emotional and nearly sexual abuse, the former necessary for character and plot development, but for Boyle to describe Elizabeth in light of these experiences as merely a ‘femme fatale’ “using her allure, her beauty to manipulate the men¬†completely¬†derides her character’s strength and refusal to be a victim. I’m not saying the abuse makes her strong or that female strength can only be borne of suffering, but I think it is important to appreciate how Elizabeth’s character chooses to manifest her experiences into the motivation to control her life.
Thankfully, Dawson shows her competence as an actress and draws Elizabeth out into something much more. The character uses her intellect and reason to outsmart the others and her motivation is a sense of poetic justice for the abuse she has suffered. Although Elizabeth is often objectified, I think ultimately she is a strong female lead because she demands as much respect and is unafraid to force that point. Boyle says: “[Actresses] play the apparent lead in a film but when you look at the part, it’s not that great, they’re like a figurehead. It’s nice to give them a role that puts them in the engine room of the film. I’ve been guilty of not doing that.
Here‘s a an excellent interview with Boyle (scroll down to the last video on the page).

I also really enjoyed the running question of the price of art, and as I take an Art History course I found the recurring maxim of “No human life is worth a piece of art” bitterly ironic considering how much blood is spilt over the Goya piece. Furthermore, Elizabeth and Simon’s conversation about ‘The Nude Maja‘ raises an interesting question about female subjects. Goya’s ‘Maja’ was amongst the first depictions of female pubic hair and was also followed by a less popular clothed version. The hairless nude is called ‘perfection’ by Simon, but his attitude to the female aesthetic seems heavily influenced by his art history background. I believe this contributes to his idolisation of Elizabeth, which becomes an obsession that translates into abuse.

This film has already got a bit of stick from long time Boyle fans and those who are ever critical of his work. I think these comments are a little harsh. At times ‘Trance’ can seem too cleverly complex, but it really is a puzzle. The stakes are high and the plot can be overblown, but not to the point of disbelief. It is a fully immersive experience, in which cinema as an artistic medium is used effectively to alter narrative chronology and mess with our heads. Perhaps it is because I’ve already been won over by the lead actors and the director before, but I thought ‘Trance’ was an excellent look into human psychology. Whilst it was not wholly original, it was brilliantly executed by those in front of, and behind the camera.¬†

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