Five brief thoughts on a recent film.
Brace yourselves. This is a full on shellacking. Although nowhere near as bad, this is the worst mainstream film I have seen since Law Abiding Citizen, which if you don’t know me personally, gives away far too much about my personal Room 101. I would advise anyone to avoid this film. I spoil the film too because why not? It’s fun. Danny Boyle is a great director and certainly doesn’t owe me anything but the enjoyment of films is the reception of the viewer, even if the enjoyment comes from a firm, self-expressive rejection. Doing this is by-necessity harder than praising a film, so be prepared for a longer than usual spiel.
1) “Danny Boyle seems to be treading water with the surprisingly thinly written Trance” says Rotten Tomatoes (amid ratings in the 60% area). I think that this is generous in a sense in that thin plots are usually characterised as simplistic. This film is the opposite, the most complicated plot I can remember ever seeing in a feature film. The problem isn’t with the thinness of this film, it’s that the plot fundamentally doesn’t make any sense. It’s essentially Lost the Movie. More than this, it’s simply a boring, tedious film. After about twenty minutes I was bored and this continued until around the eighty minute mark where I was no longer bored but simply irritated and appalled that the relief cavalry of a satisfying explanation for so much nonsense never arrived. The only area that really is thin is the characters. Devoid of any personal qualities, the actors are forced to improvise some sort of personality through their own physicality and personal charm onto these blank slates. To an extent, Vincent Cassel succeeds. Rosario Dawson seems more lost than a lamb in a thunderstorm and has nothing to do except to read the lines line a newsreader, hoping that in the final edit, they have some sort of meaning to them.
2) Let’s lay the foundation for the explanation of why the fundamental basis of the plot is flawed. The problem is that in this world, psychotherapy is essentially a fucking super-power. Rosario Dawson could give Jean Grey or Emma Frost a run for their money with what she is able to achieve. If they are conveniently within her 5% of suggestible subjects, she can make people forget any memory (even deeply personal and emotive memories) and turn them into zombies that will do anything she wants (intentionally develop a gambling problem, complete tasks for her including grand crimes and put themselves at risk of injury or death). Despite having this level of suggestibility, she can’t make her boyfriend stop being jealous or stop hitting her (he undergoes regular hypnosis sessions at this time) but can make him completely forget their relationship and assault a dangerous gangster. What she can and can’t do is not only stretching believability to breaking point but incredibly arbitrary. At one point, she makes a violent criminal fall to his knees and cry by uttering a single word with no preparation but when the same gangster physically and sexually assaults her later, she forgets that she has this power and does nothing to defend herself. Of those she has hypnotised, she is able to know things that she could not possibly know (namely that Simon has killed someone) or indeed that a single word would bring up some kind of disabling buried alive memory in the aforementioned gangster. Her powers work quite well but a simply punch to the head can undo her work (which makes no fucking sense whatsoever) like some kind of unlocking magic like a silver bullet or stake to the heart (she explains this casually as something she knows, even before it happens). She is able even to erase memories by making someone listen to a recording of her voice. She has an incredible power that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Moreover she sometimes uses her completely inhuman abilities to get everything she wants and at other times forgets to use her ability in already demonstrated ways, leaving her at multiple times at risk of being killed or raped. A more stupid view of hypnosis has never been shown, not even in The Prisoner.
3) The entire view of psychology in the film is fundamentally stupid. At first, she believes that a character has a kind of subconsciously-intentional amnesia because he does not trust the gangsters. This kind of makes sense, I guess. Later she decides that actually what she needs to do is to give him what he wants (sex with her), which works. How would she possibly know this? How could this possibly work? The subconscious is not a clever negotiator that can be bargained with over some kind of quid-pro-quo arrangement. The amnesia is due to psychological need, not a bargaining position. The idea that the amnesia (which is actually based on head trauma mixed with denial over a violent murder) was intentionally assumed to get sex out of someone is an endless spiral of inner actors which is just silly and contradictory. Would he get amnesia until someone bought him a porsche? Could his subconscious trade his disorder for a cash amount or for a nice bunch of flowers, dinner and theatre? It’s a lazy, self contradictory and audience-insulting way of advancing the plot through a full frontal scene. Exploitation at it’s finest, I guess. Don’t think too much about the plot, instead here’s some vagina.
4) In points (2) and (3), I dismantle the film’s idea of psychological realism, mostly because this takes up most of the film, at least the better part of an hour. In truth, this isn’t even the reason why the plot doesn’t make sense (but goes a long way to explaining why the film is so boring). The real reason that the plot doesn’t make sense is because it’s completely inconsistent. Most of the inconsistency is focused firmly around Dawson’s character Dr. Lamb, who is actually the film’s protagonist despite a red herring opening monologue. We get to understand her the best of any character but the extra detail only serves well to show how nonsensical her motivation is.
Lamb is a bored psychologist who knows nothing of art until she meets Simon. Simon becomes a jealous boyfriend, insults her in public and physically assaults her twice (slaps her in one scene, chokes her in another). Following this abuse, Lamb says that she knew that if they stayed together that he was going to kill her. Whilst this seems perfectly reasonable as an assertion from an abused woman, it’a actually a very literal and definitive fact. Simon is in fact destined to kill someone, does kill someone and Lamb knows he has done it before he reveals it or any proof has been revealed. Knowing (psychically/psychologically) this fact, she has the option to remove all his memories and never see him again but instead turns him into a sleeper agent to steal a painting, a sleeper agent so well trained that she feels completely safe directly texting his phone. Why she wants the painting (which she doesn’t sell) is never explained, nor still the complete contradiction of how on the one hand she fears for her life and on the other treats the situation as a business opportunity in which she all but guarantees further involvement with someone who wants to kill her. Simon’s desire to kill her is never explained – he must simply be a violent psychopath who in the period before and directly after his relationship with Lamb (until the robbery) commits no other violent crimes and is never shown to have a violent temperament. Why during the period that Lamb refuses to see Simon for fear of her life, she also continues the hypnotherapy sessions is also never rationalised, nor why Simon doesn’t simply abduct or kill her there and then.
Due to a series of uncontrolled events, Simon returns to her life with no memory of her. Despite knowing that he wants to kill her and will probably want to do as soon as he regains his memory (he already killed another woman, who in an insane vision he thought was Lamb), she does not try to get away from him but gladly retells him his memories and at one point gives him a gun and bullets. Further to this end, she taunts Simon by shaving her public hair and (presumably) having sex with him, which surely at any point could have reminded him of his former memories, leading to her murder. She decides to stay, despite the danger from both Simon and the gangsters who in a later scene try to gang rape her for a reason that the film never explains.
For another reason that the film never explains, during the period when Lamb tries to manipulate everyone to get the painting, she seems to fall for and sleep with Franck, a gangster. This contradicts her mission statement (to avoid/use/punish men likely to be violent to her – Franck broke into her apartment to proposition sex, let’s remember), is a distraction and is almost destined to make Simon jealous and rekindle his murderous rage. What the fuck is she? A Bond villain? At the end, she seems to have feeling for Franck and sends him a personal message……..yes, the same guy who was going to let his cronies rape her.
I hope the previous paragraphs have stood to the testament that none of what her character does makes any kind of sense. She repeatedly leaves herself in danger despite her supreme control of the situation and frequently takes courses of action which are completely unmotivated or contradict her other aims. That a strong and powerful woman able to outsmart the two male characters would repeatedly leave herself in situations where she must have sex with someone, is in danger of death or rape is just stupid exploitation bullshit that should be offensive. That she leaves herself so passively to these outcomes is deeply troubling.
Moreover, much of the film is silly padding and superfluous misdirection, which leads to incredible boredom. Because the film is boring and the characters featureless, when the exploitation scenes come (sex scenes, full frontal nudity, violence, a rotting corpse) they just seem like side show yuks designed to attract interest to something inherently banal through the most lurid and patronising way possible. All of Tarantino’s visuals with none of his guile, pacing, structure or dialogue and none of them really explored (Is Lamb responsible for the death of Tuppence Middleton‘s character?). Glueing porn to the front of my tax return does not make it a less tedious document, and the attempt to do so makes me think ill of the writers and director, their politics and their idea of storytelling.
5) Ok, then. Let’s talk about Danny Boyle. What was he trying to do? He’s always been a very shocking director in terms of graphic scenes and themes (Slumdog, Trainspotting, etc) but I can’t help but think he was trying to make a Christopher Nolan film. Trance clearly aims to have a similar effect to Memento – a desire to make the audience doubt the characters and even the entire filmic reality. It also aims to make you wonder which of the characters is the true orchestrator and mastermind behind these events in much the same way as The Prestige makes you wonder about the true intentions of Christian Bale‘s character. The reason this fails is because there is so much misdirection and so many logical impossibilities in the plot, it is impossible to have any meaningful conjecture and due to the shitty characters and boring pacing, really hard to care.
This is exemplified in the worst scene in the film in which in some kind of test, Simon continues to pick images of Lamb out of a deck even though he receives an electric shock each time, which proves he is obsessed with her. This scene serves a functional purpose in that Lamb needs to explain to Franck that Simon is obsessed with her in a way other than that which reveals her true past with him. Though the scene is confusing and poorly explained (and in reality Franck would be an idiot to accept this evidence from her and not seek out another psychotherapist post-haste), she also explains that he is not really feeling an electric shock, that he only thinks he is. This idea that an already twisty-turney scene can only be made better by an extra, pointless twist that adds nothing to the plot of the film (clearly so, even at the time) and only serves to alienate explains why the herring upon herring structure of the film is tedious and makes conjecture or proper explanation impossible.
The Prestige impresses you with how skilfully the lies are separated from truths whilst films like Lucky Number Slevin and The Usual Suspects reveals everything with a kind of gusto in a single scene which explains everything. Trance has neither the skill or the gusto to do this. The simple reveal that Lamb is the true mastermind and actually intended to steal the painting all along is not satisying precisely because not enough time has been spent establishing why she might have this motivation. Nor does this fact explain any kind of underlying logic behind her actions that explains her odd behaviour in previous scenes. In fact, because so little time is spent on any of the characters (Franck is a stereotype, Lamb is illogical and inexplicable with no distinct personality or home life, Simon turns out to be a random psychopath whose actions are guided by hypnosis) that the reveal of “Whodunnit” means fuck all. The film doesn’t deal with themes like jealousy or abuse, it just references them like a simple mention suffices to give the film a sense of human motivation or emotion. The film talks about psychology for hours but never has a sense of any kind of psychology behind any character.
And worse than that, we have to sit in the presence of a man (Simon) whose idea of perfection is to make women shave their pubic hair off.
The film is of course directed by Danny Boyle, who dated Rosario Dawson and got her to shave her public hair off to feature in his film.
Zing! Me-ow! Didn’t think I’d get that catty, did you?
Oh well, out of steam and back to humour. See you next time for (hopefully) less of a rant.