If Memory Serves
Familiar premise (art heist) meets tired device (amnesia).
Apr 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 30 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Trance has to be judged one of the great disappointments in recent cinema, given that it is only the second movie Danny Boyle has made since Slumdog Millionaire. That Oscar-winning worldwide smash may have been the best film of the past decade. Not so Trance, which is very much like one of those movies you used to see in video stores when video stores still existed—the ones with the well-designed box but with three names above the title you barely knew (in this case, Rosario Dawson, James McAvoy, and Vincent Cassel) and a blurb that read something like “ ‘the best film I’ve seen this afternoon’—Moose Jaw Sun-Bugle.”
Trance is about the heist of a painting from a London auction house. The twist is that the heister can’t remember where the painting is, because in the midst of the crime he gets a clop on the head from one of his criminal associates and—boom!—becomes an amnesiac.
Boyle is after something Hitchcockian. The problem is that Alfred Hitchcock (like all directors) made bad movies as well as good movies, and whenever Hitchcock got near amnesia—which he did several times—he went very, very bad indeed. Probably Hitchcock’s most ludicrous film is 1945’s Spellbound, in which Gregory Peck can’t remember anything and is treated for his condition by the luscious psychoanalyst played by Ingrid Bergman. Spellbound is famous because its dream sequences were designed by Salvador Dalí, but it should be equally famous as one of the funniest movies ever made—even though there’s not a single joke in it, despite a script by the otherwise hilarious Ben Hecht, who cowrote The Front Page as well as the peerless memoir Child of the Century.
In Spellbound, needless to say, the shrink falls for her hunky amnesiac, and after they smooch, he says, “For what it’s worth, I can’t remember ever having kissed another woman before.” The next day he tells her, “Oh, and by the way, my name’s John Ballantyne!” Later, a killer points a gun at Ingrid: “You’re an excellent analyst, Dr. Petersen, but a rather stupid woman!” He’s right about the latter but wrong about the former.
Spellbound is a direct influence on Trance, in which our amnesiac (McAvoy) goes to see a hypno-therapist (Dawson) to recover the whereabouts of the painting. Of course, they fall in love. Or do they? She might, instead, be in love with the head crook (Cassel), with whom she colludes because she’s bored and needs something new in her life—like the money from a stolen painting.
Is she actually helping the amnesiac, or is she using her hypnotic wiles to plant false memories? Is the crook also falling under her spell—a spell apparently triggered solely by her saying, “I want you to relax”? (Who knew hypnotism was so easy?) Why does she appear to be setting these two men against each other when, for reasons unknown, the crook seems to be rather a decent guy (even though he has his henchmen whittle the amnesiac’s fingers to the bone before he accepts the truth of the amnesia)?
Trance raises these and many other existential questions, such as: What’s real? What’s fantasy? Who’s who? Where’s the beef? When’s dinner? What about Naomi? And perhaps most pressing: Will this be over soon, because I could really use the bathroom?
The amnesiac plotline is so alluring that every single soap opera in world history has featured at least 50 of them. Hypnotism is also a big draw for that kind of overwrought melodrama. It’s easy to see why: Amnesia turns a person into a puzzle to be solved, while hypnotism (at least the movie version) forces people to say and do things they would not otherwise say or do. These devices are simply used to turn characters into game pieces that can be moved around, wherever necessary, to advance a plot. But the premise is so incredible that it shatters the plausibility of every story that follows.
In Trance, even more surprising is the climax, in which the ultimate perpetrator of the crime simply delivers an endless monologue that brings together all the plot strands. Every single one of those strands is absurd on its own, and beyond belief when rolled together into one ball of twine.
The only explanation for Boyle taking on this ghastly screenplay by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge is that the opening-night pageant he designed and directed for the London Olympics (remember, the one in which Mary Poppins paid tribute to the National Health Service) was so mind--bendingly silly it may have melted down his brain cells for good.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.
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