Friday, May 31, 2013

Constantly Revised and Remembered

This post contains spoilers for Trance.

Danny Boyle's Trance speeds past the super-narrative trend of modern cinema and television into a kind of total narrative, one in which the plot is being reconfigured or reframed not over a series of acts, but almost moment to moment. Joe Ahearne and John Hodge's absolutely batty screenplay is responsible for much of this, setting up a basic series of rules before discarding with any allegiance to reality, never mind the inherent question as to what that would even constitute. Boyle's familiarly hyperkinetic style is both tempered (no more three-way splitscreens showing one action) and intensified, accomplishing much more within each shot to the point that any traditional definitions of structure are obliterated. The basic plot, about art auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy), who sets up the theft of an especially valuable painting, only to steal the thing for himself, take a blow to the head, totally forget where he left it, and seek out the help of hypnotist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) to delve back into his memories, is already pretty wild stuff, but about halfway through the picture, the possibilities for this set-up have been completely exhausted, and indeed, Ahearne and Hodge seem to have come to a similar realization.

So there are double-crosses, and triple-crosses, and lots and lots of people explaining "what's really going on" only for that, too, to be total hogwash, until finally, we're left with something that must be the truth because seriously how much crazier could it get? It's all a bit much, admittedly, and perhaps the film would have been better to deliver its exposition in less didactic terms (though my screening had the benefit(?) of the sound cutting out during an entire section of revelation, so hey, who's to say), but by the point it really reaches overload, Trance has already accomplished so much that it hardly mattered.

Chiefly, the film is about the effort to bury one's inner (and outer) demons, to restrain the absolute horror show that exists beneath the cool, calm, collected surface. But where the film really pulls out the rug is in illustrating that Simon's surface is far from the only one worth examining. We're given plenty of reason to doubt him throughout the film, and the gradual revelation of his violent nature, while heartbreaking, seems almost inevitable. He claims he's never fired a gun before, and perhaps that's true, but he also takes to it extremely easily. Elizabeth provides a perfect counterbalance - speaking in a totally collected manner, we assume her to be a sort of standard female role in a genre picture, one which Dawson has played many times before, operating as little more than a device.

And then things get weird.

The discovery of Simon and Elizabeth's dark past is at once the film's defining moment, and yet its most obvious - there's a look of recognition in her eyes the moment we see them meet. It becomes a truth we'd known without ever quite stating, and this late confession ends up operating more as confirmation than a real revelation, not dissimilar to how the end of Shutter Island operated. We'd been seeing the story through this window the whole time, but now we know what the house looks like.

James McAvoy has a sort of naturally broken, almost animalistic quality to him; that he became violent with her is a natural progression, retrospectively. But the ways and extent to which we come to find that Elizabeth, too, is absolutely nuts is pretty great. Women in these pictures are usually victims or total aggressors, if they're entities at all, but Trance complicates these simple roles by having both Simon and Elizabeth be mutually destructive. You can identify where she's coming from, while at the same time thinking she's definitely in the wrong, while feeling sorry Simon, given the torture she puts him through, while also knowing that Simon kind of has it coming. Never mind the audacity of the scheme as it's unraveled, which, yes, is completely silly, but is also completely secondary to the emotional tenor of the film.

Boyle never strays too far from the pulpy fun of the piece, teasing out information in the most delectable of ways (Elizabeth communicating with Simon via notecards is a great cinematic scene, but the precise way it plays out suggests she already knows what he'll say), and providing the sort of pulsating aural and visual experience for which we've come to know him, but he hardly ignores the true depravity of it all. Quite the contrary. The sexual overtones quickly reach explosive levels, culminating in the kind of nudity that one very rarely sees onscreen, all at once alluring, filthy, and - best of all - haunting. It doesn't take much to make sex look either great or pitiful, but it's quite another to suggest some degradation of the soul.

As Elizabeth walks towards us in a distorted reflection on the floor as the camera pans up, revealing, as if out of his unspoken fantasies and desires, her completely nude, the pit into which Simon (and we) sink is at once a pleasure garden and an abyss. He's almost shuddering as she stands before him, but this is not a moment of complete agency for her, either; there's trepidation in her voice as she answers his questions. "How did you know?" he asks, regarding a particular, fetishistic indulgence. "You told me," she says, vaguely afraid of what either of them might do. To this point, we're to believe had only met her a couple of days ago, and the total unbalance that's created from her knowing something so intimate and personal makes it abundantly clear that we've only glimpsed whatever power she holds in this relationship, and whatever's going on beneath, she is equally afraid of its outcome.

This is hardly the first, nor the last, time reflections will be used to suggest emotional undercurrents. Almost too numerous to list, refractions are a recurring motif, suggesting the usual stuff about broken psyches, but also the feeling of being torn five different ways, or having one's mind in an area apart from one's body. Elizabeth floats around inside Simon's head as he looks at her through a window. She emerges in places she does not belong, invading dreams, hallucinations, and everyone's imagination, an object of obsession and a haunting spirit, as much a creation as a reality. It's a very common mistake to assume that the person to whom you're attracted can solve all your problems, and Trance makes literal this blunder by Elizabeth's position in the story. Dawson gives an astounding performance, perhaps the best of her career, constantly suggesting something is amiss while quietly reaffirming what we're supposed to believe about her. Her sexuality has been both exploited (Sin City, Clerks IIDeath Proof) and almost insistently downplayed (Eagle Eye, Unstoppable) throughout her career, and Trance offers a real merging of the two, introducing her as an almost asexual professional before unveiling her to be just as kinky and depraved as the men who constantly lust after her. As with everything else, Dawson toes the line beautifully, happily deluding herself as thoroughly as she is everyone else.

The resolution Trance offers feels at first far too pat, but upon further reflection, the illusory aspect of that may, too, be a cover-up. It's easy to present only one side of yourself when you're not personally delivering a message (the way someone can effect a situation without being physically present is another recurring motif), and it'd be difficult to surmise that, given everything that's transpired, Elizabeth is truly as content as all that. At least until she finds the next set of lives to burn to the ground. She remains, at best, an enigma, one which the men, even after everything she's put them through, are helpless before, gazing into even the idea of her presence when she's really far, far away.

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