Back to form, for better or worse: Trance

31 March 2013

'Trance', in cinemas now, is Danny Boyle's first film since directing last year's Olympics opening ceremony, and is about as good or as bad as can be expected from the filmmaker...

There is a masterpiece waiting to be made about the obscene fetishisation and criminalisation of artworks in a for-profit economy, but for better or worse, Trance is not it. Nor, to be sure, does it wish to be. Zeitgeist-chief Danny Boyle's latest film boasts fancy colours and a clever plot, and goes to curious lengths to be seen (and to be scene) as a dark, disturbing, quasi-erotic thriller when in fact it's a feature-length Maguffin that plays its narrative sleight-of-hand better and swifter than an art auctioneer ever could.

Trance pairs regular Boyle scriptwriter John Hodge with Joe Ahearne, the writer-director of the 2001 TV film of the same name and plot. In present-day London, gambling addict and art auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy) is left with a bloody head and a bad case of amnesia during an attempted theft of Goya's 1797-98 painting Witches in the Air, which has just sold for £27m. The would-be thieves, led by charmer Franck (Vincent Cassel), naturally suspect Simon of having stashed the artwork elsewhere, but unable to force such information from him, they elicit the professional expertise of hypnotherapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson). Memories are triggered - perhaps planted; relationships develop. Hodge and Ahearne's script unfolds as a three-way interplay between Simon's increasingly unreliable or (self-)deceiving narrator, Franck's strangely likeable villain and Elizabeth's opportunistic shrink, whose intentions are never clear-cut.

Boyle, British cinema's most beloved showman, works again with Anthony Dod Mantle (whose cinematography can elevate the most risible material) to inject panache and colour into a dizzying and ultimately cool scenario. Arresting framing choices play on mirrors, reflections and ideas of fragmentation and duality. Beginning with an auction-room scene that recalls one of Cary Grant's many close-shaves in North by Northwest (1959), the film promises from its outset to be as energetic and superficial a tour of high art as the central trio's slapdash tour of the Louvre in Jules et Jim (1962), threatening dramatic derailment at points but ticking over with help from Rick Smith of electro-group Underworld's soundtrack. The whole thing is stylish to a fault, of course, as the protagonists' handsome ménage à trois enters its self-complicating third act with a revelation about the origins and history of shaven vaginas. Dawson is made to walk toward camera baring all; McAvoy's boyish Scot reaches out to touch her purity...

With narrative shifts that are alienating or refreshing depending on one's outlook, Trance continues Boyle's mediocre output as a filmmaker and returns him to our unhappy medium after the opening ceremony of last year's Olympics - an overexpensive, compensatory sporting spectacle designed to distract an undernourished planet with farce and folly. The divisive centrepiece of Boyle's multimedia display last summer was an NHS homage, which (similar to The Spirit of '45) facilitated cathartic protests from safe margins for middle-class critics for whom the financial crisis was finally proving bothersome - and who refer back to such events now with juvenile jingoism. After briefly bothering himself with real-world issues, though, Boyle returns here to his marketable brand of daft cinematic razzmatazz. And here's a zeitgeist zinger in response: 'Tevs, man, 'tevs.