As best I can tell, Trance is the first film—outside porn, maybe—to have a plot that hinges on a woman's pubic hair. Though the Goya painting that goes missing in the art-heist thriller is an image of cannibalistic male witches, the work that actually holds the story's secrets is a life-size female nude. That painting, also by Goya, is widely regarded as one of the first clear depictions of pubic hair, and it becomes a dippy device in Trance's plot of obsession, hypnosis and abuse.
This hirsute twist aside, Danny Boyle's brashly maximalist film isn't as novel as it imagines itself to be. It may fancy itself a psychological thrill ride through the art world, but that rarefied arena is little more than a jumping-off point. As is the case with other films of its ilk—it owes an obvious debt to the much darker Inception—the less said about the overstuffed plot the better. But the story line is also so willfully ludicrous that spilling a few details doesn't hurt. Trance begins with narration from auction-house employee Simon (the boyish yet steely James McAvoy) on how to prevent an art heist. When smooth criminal Franck (Vincent Cassel) busts into the opening sequence, ready to steal the painting, we learn Simon is actually in on the heist. Then Simon is bonked on the head, leading him to forget where he's stashed the valuable painting and getting him into deep shit with Franck and his thuggish comrades.
From there, Simon enlists the assistance of bombshell hypnotherapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) to recover his memories from the day of the heist, but she winds up in the gang—and in a love triangle with Simon and Franck. A great deal of hypnosis ensues, dreamlike or fractured sequences that twist in on themselves and spiral outward with varying degrees of logic. Fingernails are excruciatingly ripped out, one thug has his balls shot off (can't limit ourselves to female genitalia, can we?), and a flaming car crashes into the water. Boyle, who directed Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire, has a knack for panache, but where those two films balanced hallucinatory submersion and frenetic pacing with meaningful character development, Trance gives viewers less of a reason to care about the inhabitants of its DayGlo world. To some extent, this is to its credit: Characters' loyalties and motives are slippery, keeping audiences alert. But as the film zips along, there's a sense Boyle has let style outstrip substance. It's no accident, for example, that Franck shares living space with a nightclub: With its tilted camerawork, off-kilter reflections and thunderous electronica score, Trance is sometimes like a densely plotted music video.
But as slick as the film can feel, it's also at times a great deal of fun, thanks largely to the plucky cast. McAvoy recalls one of Raphael's angels: He's adorable yet impish, which he punctuates with moments of sadistic glee and burning anguish. Cassel, who was so dark and dubious as the ballet director in Black Swan, taps into a similar vein of Gallic moral ambiguity as the brooding gang leader. Dawson rises above the requirements of her role—as the hypnotherapist, she's saddled with explaining everything—to imbue Elizabeth with a feline eroticism. No matter how insipid her lines ("Do you want to remember, or do you want to forget?"), she purrs her way through them.
Ultimately, though, Boyle's incessant plot twists and insistence on keeping audiences on their toes means that feet begin to ache. For all the film's visual gusto, the screenplay is thin, settling on a banal message about self-transformation. We are what we do, Elizabeth informs us, rather than the things that happen to us. As quickly as Trance whooshes by, viewers are left with throbbing ears and mildly dizzy heads, yet little sense of impact.
Critic's Grade: B-
SEE IT: Trance is rated R. It opens Friday at Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Living Room Theaters, Lloyd Center.