April 18, 2013

Trance: Too Many Twists, Not Enough Heart

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At a fleeting moment of calm about an hour into Trance, a seductive hypnotherapist named Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) looks into the eyes of the man next to her and asks, “What is a person, Franck?” Franck, a suave art thief played by Vincent Cassel, keeps his eyes to the ground and responds, “Not my line of work.” As I do what critics do and try to glean some profundity from this film, perhaps I should accept that Trance occupies a different “line of work” than Danny Boyle’s more ambitious works, like Trainspotting, 28 Days Later and 127 Hours. The director’s colorful and kinetic style still gets your heart racing, but it’s all just spectacle over a schizophrenic story with characters too cold and convoluted to touch.

Blame the film’s clinical and surprisingly unfunny tone on its “puzzle film” structure, a popular form of modern movie storytelling that reaches a breaking point in the hands of screenwriters Joe Ahearne and John Hodge. The “puzzle film” establishes an accepted version of reality and breaks it through one or many plot twists, all of which conspire to trigger — to borrow a colloquial term — a “mindfuck” in the viewer (think Inception or The Usual Suspects). Trance takes this formula to an extreme, loading three back-to-back plot twists into the last 30 minutes. This barrage of information reduces characters to cogs of an overly complicated and leaky plot, devoid of any humanity that made them relatable in the first place. Reorganize the nonlinear procession of scenes into chronological order and you will grasp what happened, but certainly not why.

With all the film’s twists and turns, this plot summary will stick to the strong opening 20 minutes, which hint at the layers upon layers of motivation driving these characters. Up to his neck in gambling debt, art auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy) agrees to collude with Franck and his gangsters in their auction house robbery of a multi-million dollar painting. For some reason, Simon goes off-script and assaults Franck during the hand-off, receiving the swift end of a shotgun to his temple in return. As it turns out, the package Simon hands over does not even contain the painting, Francisco Goya’s Witches in the Air, and its whereabouts go unknown to everyone, including Simon, because that blow to the head wiped out his recent memory. After a needlessly gruesome torture scene, Franck forces Simon to enter hypnotherapy, where Elizabeth can unlock his memories and find that elusive painting. As you can probably guess, the movie cares less and less about the painting — our “MacGuffin” — as it moves forward.

For its first half, Trance puts a welcome spin on the crime film genre by having a bunch of macho gangsters literally sit around and wait for a meek Rembrandt enthusiast to deal with his feelings. Elizabeth recognizes that many of the obstacles that prevent Simon from restoring his memory involve his fears of Franck or infatuation with her, so she organizes some pretty weird role-playing in order to put Simon … at ease, let us say. This leads to one of the more inexplicable visual motifs in all the annals of film history: Rosario Dawson’s pubic hair, or lack thereof. For Simon, the sight of it sets off a way of reconciling his memories and the lack of irony as to its inclusion should strike us all as inspiring, if also unabashedly stupid. This explicit sexuality segues into a much darker third act, where the men turn into hypermasculine machines that murder, rape and commit domestic violence. During this bedlam, Elizabeth plays a more central role, making for a nice thread of female empowerment, yet it comes out of nowhere and latches onto characters who, after so many plot twists, we have ceased to care for.

Trance boils down to an exercise of style over substance, but with Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle at the helm, oh, what style it is. A pioneer in the now-dominant realm of digital cinematography, Dod Mantle shoots films like almost no one else, except perhaps Roger Deakins (Skyfall). Through his high-definition lens, London highways throb like blood-red veins and neighborhood restaurants radiate fluorescent blue. Boyle and Dod Mantle achieve a distinctly modern visual look, although they call back to old films like The Third Man, with abundant canted angles and nocturnal European cobblestone streets. Pause the film at any second and you got yourself a desktop wallpaper.

Danny Boyle directed Trance in the midst of overseeing the opening ceremony to London’s 2012 Olympic Games. He deserves praise for maintaining his prolific output, and lesser efforts like Trance are easily excused when put in this context. Besides, very few acclaimed directors these days work at such a pace; the studio system giants back in the day did and they oversaw their fair share of duds (Hitchcock’s Topaz, Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg). Maybe “dud” is too strong. McAvoy, Cassel and Dawson bring their own assets that complement Boyle and Dod Mantle’s visual feast. But beauty, in all its forms, cannot salvage a story that mistakes complexity for nuance and shock for awe.

Original Author: Zachary Zahos