By Preston Wilder
“Amnesia’s bollocks!” says a thug in Trance, the new film by Danny Boyle – but in fact it isn’t bollocks. Nothing to do with the mind is bollocks (besides, amnesia’s making something of a comeback, having also featured in Fast & Furious 6). The mind deals in mindscapes that are often more vivid – and real – than reality itself. You imagine the postman delivering a package, and inside that package is a misplaced memory that’ll change your life. You hear the word ‘strawberry’ and your mind reels with thoughts of being buried alive. You’re in the French countryside, driving down a country road in the company of a beautiful French girl; you drive past a field of sunflowers, then come to a stone house where priceless masterpieces (a Cezanne, a Van Gogh, a Rembrandt) are ranged in a room like exhibits. All these things happen in Trance – but did any of them really happen? Does it matter?
Simon (James McAvoy) has amnesia, brought on by a head injury. This is awkward because Simon has stolen a painting – a valuable Goya – and he’s forgotten where he stashed it, information being sought by Franck (Vincent Cassel), the mastermind behind the heist and a gangster to whom Simon owes money. Torture having proved ineffective, Simon is dispatched to Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), a hypnotherapist with seemingly endless powers of suggestion – but Elizabeth goes beyond the call of duty, dallying first with Simon then Franck, and the line between real and imagined gets increasingly blurred.
Trance should be more fun than it is – a criticism that’s been true (for me) of almost all the films directed by Boyle (others include Trainspotting, 127 Hours and Slumdog Millionaire), a flash-merchant who badly needs to curb his undoubted talent for glitzy images. Boyle’s is what the French used to call a “cinéma du look”, a style where absolutely everything is stylish. Boyle uses filters, fast cuts, unexpected angles and shallow focus; when all else fails, he tilts the camera. If he wants to show a car driving off (this is a shot from Trance), he shows the reflection of the driver’s face in the side-mirror then pulls back as the car moves away to create a vertiginous, disorienting effect (only at the end do you even realise that was a reflection in a side-mirror). Another example: the only shot of full-frontal nudity in Trance starts as an out-of-focus blur that turns out to be a reflection in a shiny floor – then the camera cranes up, and we suddenly gaze at Ms. Dawson in all her glory.
There isn’t a boring shot in a Danny Boyle movie; trouble is, boring shots have their uses too. The style worked in Trainspotting, a film about young heroin addicts with jumpy, hopped-up psyches – but, for instance, 127 Hours never evoked the feeling of a man being trapped for 127 hours, because Boyle’s camera was so obviously untethered, and Trance never evokes the feeling of a trance-like state. When you look at people who make ‘dreamlike’ films (David Lynch, most obviously) it’s usually because they elongate Time so trivial things seem significant, as they do in a dream. Here, on the other hand, everything seems trivial, fleetingly experienced before we move on to the next dazzling image.
There’s dazzle, certainly. A lot of work went into Trance (special mention to ace DP Anthony Dod Mantle, who also photographs Lars Von Trier’s films). But I kept waiting for the pleasure to kick in, and finally decided it wasn’t going to. The basic template comes from film noir – hard-boiled men manipulated by a woman, albeit in this case with her specialist knowledge rather than her looks – but the characters are ciphers, and the plot just isn’t strong enough. “We keep secrets from ourselves, and call that forgetting,” says Elizabeth at one point, which is precisely the theme of Christopher Nolan’s wonderful Memento (2000) – but Memento built a whole drama around that theme, using amnesia as a metaphor for wilful denial, whereas here it’s just window-dressing for a bunch of unlikely twists.
Does it matter that the twists are unlikely? Not really (though the whole plot might’ve been avoided if Franck had found his own hypnotherapist, instead of letting Simon choose). When you watch fragmented, aggressively-edited scenes in which Boyle cross-cuts between three or four layers (reality? flashback? dream?), all in glittering visual shards, the thrill is sensory and has nothing to do with plot. But the thrill fades, the senses are sated and the film keeps going. Secrets are unveiled, mindscapes mined, motivations muddled, other possible themes – Love as a kind of transference (“There’s a space to fill, so he fills it with me”), and/or battered Elizabeth taking revenge on behalf of all women – cited and invariably discarded. Then the film is over, and you find you’ve forgotten all about it. Is it amnesia? Or just bollocks?
DIRECTED BY Danny Boyle
STARRING James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel, Rosario Dawson
UK 2013 101 mins