Trance, the latest psychosexual thriller from director Danny Boyle, isn't just a house of cards. It's a house of cards built on a table of cards, standing on a floor of cards inside a bigger house of cards. Trance is cards all the way down.
James McAvoy plays Simon, a security officer for DeLancey's art auction house. After amassing extensive gambling debts, he decides on a whim to reach out to a criminal kingpin he knows through shady circles, Vincent Cassel's Franck. They plot an inside job on a Goya painting worth millions of dollars, but the heist goes wrong, and Simon hides the painting. After sustaining a head injury, he wakes with no memory of where he stored the painting, and Franck's not having that. They go to a hypnotherapist, Rosario Dawson's Elizabeth Lamb, to recover Simon's memory and their golden ticket. As Elizabeth pries into the dark corners of Simon's mind, his grasp on the boundaries between reality and fantasy slips, along with the audience's.
While that summary may read as fairly straightforward, the problem with Trance is that it's missing a central conceit. The best psychological thrillers expand on a very simple dynamic. After you peel away the hallucinations and intrigue and unreliable narration, what remains is fundamental storytelling. A ballerina can't take the pressure. A new wife is threatened by the memory of the first lady of the house. An actress has been beaten down by Hollywood and heartbreak. A woman is tormented by the overbearing sexual attention she receives from the men in her life.
Trance, on the other hand, is about zip. If you dig beneath the manipulation, nothing remains.
That's not to say that the manipulation itself has no merit. Some of the illusions created by Elizabeth's hypnosis are incredible. That shotgun-shattered head from the trailers? Astonishing. Ephemeral flashes of sex and fire and waves and wings are all striking to behold. Boyle uses funhouse angles and perpetual reflections, set to Rick Smith's rad electronic score, so that the contents of even a single frame are to be questioned.
But when we reach the end of this hall of mirrors, we learn there's nothing there. There is no "ah-hah" moment in Trance's denouement. When the rules of this universe are revealed, we learn how unfairly we've been tricked - because there were never any rules in the first place. And while that may sound like daring, rogue storytelling, the end result feels more like a desperate attempt to plug the holes in this sinking boat. Trance began with the tricks, not the tale. The entire story feels like an exercise in "wouldn't it be cool if?". It's as bare as Rosario Dawson's vagina.
That might need some explaining. Before Simon and Elizabeth have sex, she excuses herself to the bathroom and we hear a razor buzzing. She returns in her bare glory, the camera meticulously traveling up Dawson's spectacular bod. Simon asks how she knew that he likes his women bare, and she responds that he told her.
You see, Goya's painting La maja desnuda is considered one of the first public depictions of female pubic hair. Simon doesn't like that. Before Goya, a woman's nudity in art represented her angelic perfection. Pubic hair represents humanity, and humanity's gross.
I could write an entire post about this, and I probably will, but I think it's important to include this point in the review, as well. While there is technically script justification for the lengthy exposure of Elizabeth's bare vagina, and while I am certainly no prude when it comes to nudity on film, something about this detail feels defiantly indecent. It's not only that Trance makes the argument that a woman must shave her vagina to be considered beautiful. After all, that's Simon's point of view, and Simon's a jerk. Perhaps if Elizabeth's character were defined as something more than victim/villain (and this is in no way Dawson's fault, as she is the best part of the film in a quicksilver performance), her flaunted genitals would not rankle so.
I can only chalk up my displeasure here to the film's general odiousness. Trance is distasteful. It's mean-spirited and gross. If it were unabashedly so, I could admire it. If it weren't trying so hard to outsmart us and failing so remarkably, I could applaud its abandon. But Trance is neither righteously wanton nor deliberately abstract. It's merely half-baked storytelling made memorable by sheer ugliness.