Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
April 2013


24 empty frames per second

Danny Boyle rearranges plot devices to meaningless effect in 'Trance'

Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Danny Boyle
Screenplay: Joe Ahearne and John Hodge
Starring: James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel, Danny Sapani, Matt Cross and Wahab Sheikh
Rated R / 1 hour, 41 minutes
Opened April 12, 2013
(out of four)

Danny Boyle's Trance is centered around the theft of a priceless work of art, the entire purpose of which is to set the events of the plot into motion; so it would be easy to classify the painting - Goya's "Witches in the Air" - as the MacGuffin. Be that as it may, the designation misses the larger point, which is that everything in Trance is a MacGuffin. It is built entirely on the meaningless.

This is a film whose pivotal event is a heist, yet it's not really concerned with either the criminals or the crime. Except inasmuch as they move the narrative forward. This is a film about an amnesiac protagonist who has to undergo hypnosis in order to, essentially, piece together the plot, yet it's glaringly uninterested in memory, or psychology, or hypnosis, or the human mind in general. Except inasmuch as they move the narrative around.

It's a movie that involves a sexual relationship built on possessiveness, obsession and one particular fetish, and yet it never feels driven by the blood-boiling passion that drives any of those things. It is a movie that pays lip service to modern art without really saying anything about it. It is a movie about compulsive behavior, but which has a conspicuous lack of curiosity about what drives that behavior. Trance is a film that purports to take us inside the mind but winds up eaten from the inside by its own plot machinations.

In theory, this could at least be seen as an interesting bit of construction, as Boyle and writers Joe Ahearne and John Hodge concoct a seemingly intricate narrative out of thin air, using broad ideas and melodramatic devices as nothing but plot markers, substituting artifice for meaning. If you'll pardon the odd comparison, this movie seems to do accidentally (or just lazily) what Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control did deliberately.

But while the latter was abstract and dryly satirical, Trance is something of an elaborate con job. It offers an instantly titillating combination - an erotic, metaphysical heist movie with James McAvoy and Rosario Dawson? Can't miss! - decorates it with superficial ideas and scrambles a bunch of half-plots around to make it seem like we're seeing something cogent. But what seems controlled and propulsive while we're watching it is exposed, upon reflection, as one boiling hot mess. It's neither cerebral nor erotic (it's trying to be both), and in the end it's not much of a heist, either. And it's certainly no thriller. And not even Danny Boyle's Dutch angles and rainbow-colored visuals can distract us from that.

Boyle's energy and penchant for experimentation enliven the film and makes certain parts work better than they fundamentally should. I prefer to think of those as standalone pieces; otherwise they're just fragments of unfulfilled promise in a generally unsatisfying whole.

A disoriented silhouetted shootout scene works terrifically, as does a surreally gruesome confrontation between McAvoy and a half-headless Vincent Cassel. But nestled in between scene after scene of nonsense, those bits of inspiration are remarkably easy to forget. Ditto the performances from Mcavoy, Dawson and Cassel, all of whom are game for pretty much anything Boyle throws at them. Pity about the screenplay they're forced to act out.

McAvoy plays Simon, an auctioneer who helps pull off a heist at his own auction house, only to seemingly double-cross his partner Franck (Cassell), who unwraps his presumed plunder only to find the aforementioned Goya missing, cut from its frame. The only problem is, Simon doesn't seem to have any memory of having lifted the painting himself - indeed, doesn't seem convinced that he even did lift it, or that he was even involved with Franck to begin with. So after ransacking Simon's apartment to no avail, Franck and his crew get the bright idea of taking their partner in crime to a hypnotist, Elizabeth (Dawson), to see if she can dig around and extricate the painting's location from Simon's subconscious.

This all sets the table for a lot of playfulness, and allows Boyle to shift or limit our perspective as he sees fit. But at a certain point, the initial adrenaline rush of the filmmaking begins to wear off, and all we're left with is an arbitrary exercise in nihilism.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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