“Everyone knows amnesia is bullshit,” mutters a henchman after the art heist in Trance, a film about the loss—and retrieval—of memory. The self-aware disclaimer does little to alleviate the fact that beneath all of the high-concept razzle-dazzle is a narrative spine with a bad case of sclerosis.
It starts off well enough: Simon (James McAvoy), a blue-eyed auctioneer in a well-tailored suit, has collaborated with a band of thieves to steal Goya’s Witches in the Air in order to pay off his gambling debts. But the plan goes awry when he gets bludgeoned over the head so thoroughly that he forgets where he’s stashed the stolen canvas. When brute force fails to jog Simon’s memory, his partner Franck (a surly Vincent Cassel) insists that he try hypnosis to coax forth the information. The remainder of the film plays upon whether or not it is really coincidence that leads him to the office of sultry and serene hypnotherapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson).
For the sessions to work, Elizabeth also needs Franck to assure Simon that he won’t simply be murdered once the painting is found. In aiding the process of drawing Simon out, Franck is drawn in. Both men become violent somnambulists under her spell, fighting and betraying each other with impressive stamina. Understandably so: even when downplayed in tan and taupe office-wear, Rosario Dawson’s physical beauty is nothing short of goddess-like. But it feels exploitative when the film attempts to pass off a purely masturbatory well-groomed full-frontal moment as an artistic ode to female perfection as depicted by the Old Masters.
As perception and memory are increasingly confounded, the perverse and perplexing love triangle begins to take precedence over the whereabouts of the painting—so much so that by the end of the film you may find yourself asking “Goya who?” The more important question becomes who is manipulating who, and to what end. The characters themselves don’t seem too certain, as repressed memories resurface and meld into projected fantasies.
The muddled mental states of the characters (and that of the audience) are mirrored by the film’s visual style, which oscillates between languorous dreamscapes and frenetic action sequences. Images are multiply refracted in almost every reflective surface the director can find, and the erratic color palette resembles the handiwork of a disturbed child’s finger painting. The constant layering of flashbacks within memories wrapped in dreams is derivative—think Inception—and it’s frustrating to see something as abstract as memory conceptualized through shuffling photos on an iPad.
There are, of course, a few small characteristic Boylean pleasures. Fast cuts, canted camera angles, and an amped-up soundtrack ensure a palpable kinetic momentum. And as in so many of the director’s movies, bodily effluvia (and parts) are deployed to great effect, and affect.
To the credit of screenwriting duo Joe Ahearne and John Hodge, the characterization is far from Manichean. Refusing the simplistic camps of good and evil, villain and victim, ensures we’re never bored. But neglecting to flesh out the motivations of characters results in a lack of emotional investment. By the end, the dramatic tension has long since been deflated. For a film with such a thoroughgoing dedication to discord, its final image is just a little too neat. Fading out on Franck’s gleeful perch between remembering and forgetting, Trance’s ambiguity is as self-satisfied as Cassel’s signature grin.