BRIT PICK: Trance (2013)

Trance (UK, 2013)
Directed by Danny Boyle
Starring James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel, Danny Sapani

It's very common for directors to kick back and have some fun after winning a major award. The Coen Brothers have virtually made a career out of alternating weighty, compelling dramas like No Country for Old Men with more frothy, whimsical fare like Burn After Reading. Having wowed the world with the 2012 Olympic ceremonies, Danny Boyle is now following their lead with Trance, a film that's shallow, indulgent, ill-disciplined - and quite good fun.
Boyle's films have always maintained a balance between the earthy and the ethereal. They are often rooted in gritty, down-to-earth characters with whom an audience can empathise, but equally they have moments or sometimes entire concepts which are utterly fantastical. These latter elements often shape the film, as a form of magic breaking into and distorting our perception of reality. Think of the toilet scene in Trainspotting, the glimpse of heaven in A Life Less Ordinary, or all the scenes with Pinbacker in Sunshine.
In the case of Trance, it is as though Boyle sat down, watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Inception, Memento and Mulholland Drive in one day, and then said: "Those were all great - but now let's do the fun version." That's not to say that none of these films are entertaining, whether viscerally or intellectually, but Trance is driven by a guttural instinct towards having fun - something which is both its biggest asset and its greatest liability.
The story of Trance is firmly in the territory of all these films. It shares with Inception the concept of lucid dreaming within a crime thriller storyline, along with recurring images of lifts (this may also be a reference to Angel Heart). Like Memento our lead character's journey is examined through the fragmented nature of his memory, and it transpires that there is something in his past which gives him an abusive nature.
Like Eternal Sunshine, the film's storytelling is based around dream logic and recurring images, with fantasy and reality, past and present all blurring at the whim of the director. Both films also have a central relationship based around suppressed memories, with its participants discovering that they know more about each other than they may realise. There are also small nods to Mulholland Drive (the recurring use of blue light), Terminator 2 (the scene with the keys in the truck), and the work of Nicolas Roeg, particularly Performance and Don't Look Now.
Hanging over Trance, on top of all these influences, is the erotic thriller genre. It's a film which is fascinated by the female form, and sometimes it can feel like the whole film is but a series of wraparounds between Elizabeth's intimate encounters. It even tries to pull the old trick of justifying what is essentially trash on the basis of some artistic value: we get a long conversation with Simon about painters' attitudes to pubic hair, followed swiftly by a full-frontal shot of Elizabeth.
If nothing else, the visuals of Trance are worth the price of admission alone. Even by Boyle's standards this is a very flashy film, in which colour and light are manipulated constantly to dazzle and confuse the audience. Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography is as heady as ever, resembling some kind of nightmarish acid night, and the recurring use of blue and neon orange light make the film resemble a more druggy version of Tron Legacy.
When it comes to the storytelling, Trance lives up to its name, for good and bad. Having lured you in with an attractive set-up, a good central performance and many of Boyle's typical touches, it leads you on a merry chase wherever it pleases. In the moment, it's really evocative and memorable, but once it's over you only remember odd images, and the more you think about it, the more you realise you were being manipulated to do or believe in things that didn't make sense.
Generically speaking, Trance changes gear several times in a way which is both laudable and confusing. It starts off as a light-hearted, pulpy little caper film, drawing heavily on the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair. Then things become more surreal, with long scenes of hypnosis inter-cut with bewildering fantasy. Then the erotic thriller elements rear their head, leading us to question whether the film is commenting on female objectification or merely depicting it. Finally, it becomes a taut three-handed thriller along the lines of The Disappearance of Alice Creed. When all the dust has settled and you're asked to sum up the plot, you find aspects memorable but struggle to explain why.
What all this jumping around means is that the film doesn't fully explore the potentially interesting ideas that it raises. Chief among these is the notion that hypnotism could be used to exploit people for criminal gain, whether getting people to recite their bank details or carry out a criminal act on another's behalf. Had the film grabbed this idea by the scruff of the neck, you could have had a worthy counterpart to Inception, but instead it's raised in one scene and then not really taken anywhere.
Many of the dream-scapes presented in the film contain images which are just crying out to be explored in more detail. At one stage Elizabeth hypnotises one of Franck's henchmen, and with a single word makes him believe that he is being slowly buried alive. The film could have used this scene as a jumping-on point for examining the origin of fears and how they manifest in our subconscious. But either Boyle isn't all that interested, or he can't turn those often shocking scenes into something seamless and coherent.
The best way to illustrate the central problem with Trance is to compare the film to his earlier work Sunshine. While Sunshine had ravishing cinematography and a series of striking images, these images were built into an examination of something deeper. Even though the film fell away slightly at the end, there was still a conscious attempt to use visual imagery to draw out complex ideas. Trance, on the other hand, has imagery for the sake of imagery: it doesn't have a great deal between its ears and it delights in leading us up the garden path. That's all fine, but it would have been better had it just made a little more effort with the script.
The performances in Trance are, with the visuals, the main aspect that keeps us interested. James McAvoy is very convincing as Simon, going through a wide range of emotions very believably and managing to stay empathetic even as his character turns nasty. Rosario Dawson acquits herself very well, considering that she has less and less to work with as the story moves forward. And Vincent Cassel adds this performance to his ever-growing list of compelling bad guys, ranking alongside his turn in Black Swan for aggression with intelligence behind it.
Trance is Danny Boyle at his most gleefully disreputable. The film is a visual feast with eye-popping cinematography, and its storyline contains many surprising turns - but it's still ultimately a shallow and indulgent work, which stimulates the senses but not the mind. It's by no means Boyle's best work, nor is it something he should seek to repeat, but as an exercise in entertaining trash, it's perfectly fine.


NEXT REVIEW: Metropolis (1927)