“Whatever happens, don’t be a hero.”
Trance’s opening close-up is of a Rembrandt: not only the artist’s painting Storm on the Sea of Galilee but, as the narrator alleges, a cameo the painter included of himself within its pastels. Ostensibly at the stern of the beleaguered vessel, Rembrandt glares out at us from the oil, incredulous at the disciples’ plight before us: a self-portrait within a Biblical illustration that, like our guide in the film, breaks any semblance of art’s ‘fourth wall.’ The painting, the artist’s only seascape, was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 and has never been recovered. Our narrating auctioneer Simon, played by James McAvoy, mourns the bygone era of brazen art thefts that successfully thieved Galilee, a rarity now given the standard protections to which he is currently assigned (Ukrainian ex-naval commandos surveil the London auction house’s perimeter with him).
The painting at the center of the film’s main art heist, however, is a Goya; that artist’s cameo-less Witches in the Air which thieves led by Franck (Vincent Cassel) attempt to burglarize in a rare, contemporary display of the old-fashioned way. When Simon is hit hard in the process, his previous resourcefulness and command now muddled amnesia, the cronies enlist the services of London hypnotist Elizabeth Lamb (played by Rosario Dawson) to resurrect his injured consciousness and relocate the painting. They now face not only an ocean of modern security systems and technologies designed to protect the art, aptly described as protocol “in the event of an event,” but the even murkier depths of Simon’s subconscious – and theirs.
So begins the story of Danny Boyle’s Trance, the English director’s crime thriller that premiered a decade ago at 2013’s South by Southwest. Since I saw the film in its brief theatrical run, Trance was admittedly a lapse of my own memory until a 2018 auction wherein Banksy famously triggered a $1.4 million painting to shred itself upon an announcement of its sale. Videos of the disintegration, naturally, sent social media into a frenzy and had me recalling the film’s ending in which the characters’ quarry burns over credits. Would Banksy agree with Simon’s view that art robberies are more opaque; that at least the ‘stick ‘em up’ criminals of yesteryear were somehow more honest criminals than today’s raiders armed with numbered paddles? I went into my sophomore screening only recalling the film as a treatise on art when treated as an asset; yet, in one of memory’s many tricks, what I experienced was almost an entirely different film: a psychological noir, with spins on character archetypes that called for reappraisal.
Boyle was certainly not the first filmmaker interested in bringing the subconscious to screen. 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the German expressionist movement’s ballad of a crazed somnambulist, arguably ushered the very first movie twist into Hollywood’s beginnings. A veteran of the silent era himself, Alfred Hitchcock blurred the line between psychological and criminal with Spellbound and even enlisted surrealist Salvador Dali to design the film’s suspenseful dream sequence. And by the turn of the decade, Christopher Nolan ushered in what we now consider the mind-bending zeitgeist of Inception (Boyle used the blockbuster as an example to secure funding for Trance). Boyle was, simply put, at the top of his game when he tackled Trance: a few years off from an Academy Award victory for Slumdog Millionaire, he put the project on hold after principal photography concluded to helm the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics in London. Yet he opted here to make an English thriller so small-scale that it could easily be mistaken as a director’s debut. Sensibilities from his oeuvre are at full display: Simon leaning from a ledge when sharing his history of gambling addiction appropriately recalls the frenetic zombie POVs of 28 Days Later, followed shortly by a henchman’s nightmarish memory of being buried alive that echoes the claustrophobia of 127 Hours. One hardly needs a degree in art history to notice the Trainspotting and Sunshine director’s expert use of color: a green abode for Franck, who believes all humans are inherently greedy, versus the orange for Elizabeth’s quarters that provides a safe haven for Simon.
Yet Trance is most compelling when, like any good Baroque, it depicts portraits of real-life Londoners’ surviving the circumstances of their noir by whatever means necessary. Simon’s cautionary words at the beginning do little to prevent the robbery itself but do eventually ring true to his morally questionable background: “whatever happens, don’t be a hero.” We sympathize with the Rembrandt-loving Simon as at the beginning: our preserver of the fine arts, after all, is brutally beaten then tortured by Franck’s gang. Yet we learn Simon is indeed the criminal; in fact, a serial abuser and egotistical control-freak who approaches every relationship with the betrothal of an artist to his creation. Take, for instance, the ripped pages of Simon’s art catalog we thought to be torn in a home invasion. Those pages were of Goya’s The Naked Maja, angrily torn by a lover following Simon’s lamentation of the painter‘s decision to illustrate pubic hair on his female subject, decrying it as the end of art’s ability to capture infallibility and perfection. The woman subsequently shaves to satisfy him.
Given his legacy and stature, one easily forgets that Rembrandt was the artist’s first name. After seeing Simon’s true colors, his opening reference to the artist could very well be casual: he haughtily considers himself on a first-name basis with the Dutch painter – in the same company, the same sentence. Later, Simon now memoryless and amid the search for the painting, sleeps with his therapist Elizabeth. She emerges from her bedroom in a full-frontal, shaven. It is Boyle’s high-octane version of the “Scene d’amour’” scene from Vertigo; substitute Bernard Herrmann’s strings with a Moby track and, like Jimmy Stewart’s Scotty, Simon witnesses his product exactly the way he wanted. Whereas Scotty was designing his Madeline in a vain attempt to capture a ghost, Simon appears to be experiencing the product of his preferences for the very first time. Boyle, by way of Hitchcock, brings the audience to the crossroads of art and mind. Yet it is revealed, in perhaps the film’s most detrimental twist, that Elizabeth was the lover in Simon’s prior relationship: she is the orchestrator of our art heist as a means of avenging her previous objectification and thereby switches the power dynamic of painter-subject when crossing into her territory.
Like Simon, Elizabeth begins the film as our guide to the art of psychology…and just as our perception of him changes, so does our perception of her as the story’s femme fatale. All previous indicators of Simon’s free will and self-preservation to be nothing but ruses. Hers, however, are full-fledged means to ends; for instance, sleeping with Franck to discover the location of his gun. Interestingly, she defines “forgetting” as keeping secrets from one’s self and diagnoses Simon’s prolonged memory lapse as an inability to admit his violent nature. The henchmen later implore her to define what exactly “killed” means, their own moral codes now at her whim. Dawson is excellent in these scenes and it is a shame that Boyle relegates her to a gratuitous rape scene midway through the film: in every scene before and after, she aptly channels Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon with command and desire cloaked in innocence. She moreover harbors a complexion that declares all the men in her life and practice have lied, cheated, and manipulated to get what they want – and questions, who is to say she can’t as well? Simon’s abuse becomes more physical and it is later revealed that he is a cold-blooded killer and murdered a woman in a psychopathic rage, thinking her to be Elizabeth. Elizabeth claims victory, securing Witches in the Air. No one in Trance is worth rooting for, but Elizabeth, our personified ‘witch in the air,’ comes the closest.
Ten years later, I was surprised by how little in Trance had aged. “Have you ever killed someone?” met with a heavy’s reply, “well, yeah, in Iraq” is an exchange showing characters that have not quite begun to question the justified war of the prior decade. Instead, that very disillusionment can be found more so in their actions: like the noirs the film emulates, the collective trance left by wartime and recession that provokes them to raid art halls. Unlike Simon and Elizabeth, the hard-boiled villain Frank abhors self-reflection: when inquired “what is a person?” he shuns it and anything even bordering on metaphysical with, “not my line of work.” He naturally cares little for the art he steals, the most excitement derived instead from the occasional goal on television. Characters’ worship of technology will prove a common theme throughout the film, with their obsession with and overreliance on 1st generation iPads. The pivotal sequence in which Simon retrieves his memory, for instance, is completed via a simple tap of an application. The inverse occurs in the denouement, with ambiguity as to whether or not a Franck will click an ancient-looking app called “Trance.” Both scenes may be laughable now amid the launch of the iPhone 15, but with artificial intelligence’s uncanny ability to resurrect Goya and Rembrandt and forge their life’s work, a tap on a screen that unlocks visions is a prescient inclusion.
As a James Bond fan, I wonder beyond tabloid speculation what exactly Boyle and co-writer John Hodges had planned for their unproduced No Time to Die, described as “crazy, madcap.” I’m curious if it would be anything like Trance, a film that masterfully intersects the veneer and sophistication of one subject matter with the absurdity and psychosis of another. The 2013 movie is by no means perfect; it can be a frustrating viewing experience with some, as described, gratuitous scenes. It can be admired, however, for its profound performances along with Rick Smith’s musical score that nicely builds transcendent reveals (even if you don’t quite know what is going on in them). Trance’s dream rules, or lack thereof, allow for an exhibit of grisly images: yes, a half-decapitated man pleading with Simon to believe him is silly—but aren’t all images of dreamlike certainty once we awake? Across all the Cezannes and Caravaggios, all the Rembrandts and Goyas (both paintings and people), the most complex canvas will always be the minds of the artists themselves, their paintings only scratching the surface of their egos, Simon, Elizabeth. Franck: victims trapped in their own trances, asking themselves the immortal question: do you want to fight or forget?