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The opening sequence of Danny Boyle’s Trance is by far the most entertaining in the film. Here we are introduced to Simon (James McAvoy), a slick but otherwise unsuspecting, bright-eyed young auctioneer, running through the auction-house procedures for securing valuable works of art from a robbery. This is interspersed with a cooly delivered monologue from McAvoy that suggests there is something more than meets the eye here. The protagonist is informed that no piece of art is worth a human life. “Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career …” wrote John Hodge for Boyle’s Trainspotting (Hodge is also the screenwriter of Trance). Don’t choose art, apparently. As this sequence unfolds, Simon will appear to ignore this advice when a bunch of thieves descend upon the auction-house.
This exciting sequence recalls different things for me. Firstly, the theft of the Mona Lisa. It took more than twenty-four hours before anyone noticed that the Mona Lisa was missing when it was stolen from the Louvre in 1911. Afterwards, countless people flocked to see the empty space where it had once been on display. Hundreds of readers wrote in to L’Echo de Paris insisting that the painting must still be in the Louvre, hiding somewhere. The detectives imagined the priceless painting kept in style like an expensive mistress. Nobody believed that the thief could be one so humble as he turned out to be. Darian Leader used this story for his book, Stealing the Mona Lisa, as a multifaceted metaphor for why we look at art. He explores why artists create it, and why it has to be so expensive. No need to get bogged down in these enlightening thoughts whilst watching Trance though, as this is not that kind of film.
The problem is that this film feels like its been cobbled together from various other successful films. It is a bit like Oceans Thirteen (but if it was then Vincent Cassel’s performance would be less wooden and far more entertaining than this portrayal of a sexy robot retorting “Where izz tha painting?” every five minutes). The complex and tricksy narrative reminds me of every film Christopher Nolan has made (previous to the Dark Knight series). The pace of the production is something that is classic Danny Boyle (think Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire), but the narrative comes across as confused in its deliberate attempt to pull the wool over our eyes. What’s more, the characters are unconvincing and uninteresting.
The LA Times reported that filming for Trance went on hold for over a year between the preparations for the Olympic opening ceremony. Boyle mentioned when in Los Angeles recently, “by the time we got back to the movie, I had forgotten it. The first time we watched it, after we regrouped after the Olympics, it was bizarre — I didn’t know what was coming next. I didn’t know that was possible.” This quote is revealing, and goes a good way to explaining why Trance feels like a pastiche. The twists and turns in the plot seem a bit of a desperate attempt to string a film together from the remains of others.
Not only is it difficult to make out what this film is about, it’s a challenge to maintain your interest enough to find out. But for me this is not the film’s worst crime. Also in the LA Times, Boyle mentions his interest in making a film with a female protagonist. “I have two daughters who are in their 20s now, and I had never made a movie where the woman was the absolute engine of the movie,” Boyle said. “And I loved that challenge, because I make boys movies, really.” Subsequently, as it eventually transpires, Trance is a film about a woman who experiences domestic abuse, but Boyle takes this deeply disturbing subject matter and turns it into a crass and overly simplistic revenge story, providing as much subtlety and nuance as a sledgehammer would. Even a somewhat reflective sequence on the depiction of the female form in painting turns out to be something of a convenient excuse to catch a glimpse at Rosario Dawson, naked and shaved. I remain unconvinced that this is anything other than just another “boy movie” from Boyle.
Not that subtlety and nuance are what we expect from Boyle, but we might hope for a gripping narrative at least, and there are mere moments of that here — I came to think that there are a few good films in Trance trying to get out. When the long-awaited twist is finally revealed, it is not just unconvincing and underwhelming but, from the point of view of a woman, even offensive. No amount of car explosions and fast camerawork can rectify this.
Trance is currently showing in cinemas across the UK.
Becky is a writer, editor and researcher of visual arts and the environment. She lives in Oxford.
She works collaboratively with Inheritance Projects—a small group of independent curators and researchers that organise exhibitions, events, new commissions, publications and research projects.
She blogs at Atmospheres of Uncertainty.