In the era of the geek and insider entertainment blogs, we hear this kind of thing all the time: “X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) wouldn’t have sucked if it’d been directed by Bryan Singer instead of Brett Ratner!” Usually, such statements refer to big budget sequels helmed by so-called hacks, but I find the comparative extrapolation far more intriguing when applied to pet projects from beloved auteurs. Take Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) for example. How would the movie have turned out if, say, Danny Boyle had come up with the concept?
To find the answer, one needs only to look at Trance, which tells of an art thief, Simon (James McAvoy), undergoing hypnotherapy to remember where he hid Francisco Goya’s “Witches in the Air”. You see, his partners in crime, led by Franck (Vincent Cassel), knocked him out during the robbery, causing a severe head injury and therefore a pretext for movie amnesia. In keeping with the genre, they enlist the help of a dangerously sexy specialist to navigate our anti-hero’s psyche, but, as the narrative shifts in and out of his mindscape, Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) begins to unveil a devilish agenda of her own.
The similarities with Inception are striking to say the least. Though the protagonists don’t literally infiltrate their target’s dreams, they do appear in each other’s hypnotic delusions, blurring the line between objective reality and subconscious fantasy until we can no longer tell fact from fiction. Like Nolan, Boyle marries this surrealist approach to film noir, centering his story on men who bask in moral ambiguity and find their best laid plans torn asunder by a sneaky femme fatale.
However, while Inception checks these genre tropes with cold calculation, Trance seems to favour the warm messiness inherent to pulp fiction. Consider the films’ respective final shots, which both pertain to an unresolved dilemma. One movie closes in on a carefully foreshadowed symbol for suspension of disbelief. The other focuses on the person presented with a choice, putting less emphasis on the mysteries of storytelling than on the character’s playful reaction to them. In other words, whereas Nolan concerns himself with ethereal ideas, Boyle trades in human nature.
As such, the cast of Trance has got a lot more room with which to play. Rosario Dawson brings an alluring calmness to her role as a mysterious opportunist, and Vincent Cassel does a great job conveying a man who, for better or for worse, may not live up to his reputation as a ruthless criminal. James McAvoy also gives a charismatic performance, exuding an increasingly eerie level of confidence that puts into question Simon’s control over his own, sometimes monstrous actions. By the time the credits roll, we’re left piecing together not just what happened to these flawed characters but who among them served as the story’s true villain.
In light of this, I’m surprised to find myself preferring Nolan’s take on the subject matter. I suspect my issue lies in Trance stripping its protagonist of his responsibility either as a hero or a villain, owing not just to his perpetual hypnotic state but also to the emotional dependence of which his love interest takes advantage. Relationships based on transference are forbidden precisely because they bring out psychotic behaviour in the patient, but Boyle seems too concerned with Elizabeth’s victimisation to acknowledge her part in the whole mess. Of course, that’s if you believe events unfold as depicted in the final act. As Simon reminds us twice in the opening voiceover, “No piece of art is worth a human life.”
Even if we were to take the characters’ degeneration at face value, there’s no rule against telling stories about unsympathetic people doing unsympathetic things to each other. Sure, one might have expected a stronger moral core from the director of Slumdog Millionaire (2008), but Boyle shot Trance while working on the London Olympics as a means to cleanse his palate from all the uplifting positivity. People at different stages of life make for different artists, which raises another intriguing question: who would’ve made the better hypnosis-themed thriller, Danny Boyle today or Danny Boyle circa 2008?