Art thieves are the trickster gods of cinema. Stealthy and dashing, they seem to just outwit security systems and charm open even the most intricate safes. In the end, they always have one last trick up their sleeve—one you didn’t see coming—to outfox the cunning cops. And, even if they are ultimately motivated by greed, they are portrayed as aesthetes, connoisseurs of mankind’s finest artistic achievements. Like folk heroes, their crimes are seen as victimless, daring redistributions of wealth. Whereas bank robbers are desperate ex-felons with bottle blonde girlfriends chain smoking slims, art thieves are cool cat burglars dancing through laser beams or bon vivant millionaires in it for the thrill.
That is, if they are successful. We like our tricksters pristine—challenged perhaps, but ultimately undefeatable, omniscient even—Thomas Crownes and Danny Oceans. If their plan is botched however, as it is in Danny Boyle’s Trance, that panache crumbles into paranoia and the thieves become just that, common criminals. The gods fall from the heavens to become Melville-ian characters in the red circle.
But Boyle calculates his latest pop fantasy carefully to tease out the natural affinity between the heist caper and the psychological thriller—more specifically the amnesiac subgenre of thriller. Now when the plan goes wrong, not only do the villains have to play nice with one another if any of them are to profit from their score, they must engineer another heist, of the brain. Boyle has fun playing at these symmetries, creating a lavish shot in the final chase sequence of a freeway, for example, that looks very much like an EKG scan. Then there is the hypnotism to which the burglars resort (ergo the trance of the title) which squares nicely with the heist genre. Hypnotists—at least hypnotists as we popularly imagine them, and such is Rosario Dawson’s seductive Elizabeth Lamb—like thieves, sneak into a heavily guarded place to liberate what is hidden therein.
Filmmaking too, of course, is a kind of spell casting, a hypnotism, implanting and mixing up our memories. And Boyle’s best moments are the trippy reconstructions of the event gone awry. These knotty sequences with the filmic version of dream logic put us in mind of the utterly singular Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind. But Boyle’s pacing and super-saturated bubble-gum palette keep feeding us information, rather than removing it as did Lacuna Inc. Like the bag of sand Indiana Jones swaps for the golden idol, Trance fills us up with false impressions. While the hoods led by Vincent Cassel search for the Goya painting they stole and then lost, our brains are broken into to the beat of Boyle’s signature techno soundtrack and pumped full of misdirection and a whopping shot of adrenaline.
And isn’t it fitting, to digress for a moment, that the chief thief is played by Cassel, an actor with the elan of a Tony Curtis but enough menace (Black Swan, anyone) to make him a viable crook? His (perfect) casting highlights the rather wonderful notion of an audience’s belief in an actor’s extra-textual (i.e. off-script, in real life) character—a continuum of personality off-screen that connects the movies of theirs we have loved. In other words, was Cassel so believable as the capoiera-dancing jewel thief in Ocean’s 12, that we think he actually is like that at home? That he and Monica Bellucci are elegantly pillaging the tonier neighborhoods of Paris with street lights gleaming off their perfect smiles? Because we certainly do seem to believe that George Clooney, who really does own the house where Cassel’s character from Ocean’s lived, is a kind of Danny Ocean in real life. Don’t we want him to be?
All of which is to say that Trance stays true to its heist-y heritage, and an august line it is. We have always been entranced with the caper flick. Theft is one of our favorite plotlines, certainly in the Promethean sense of acquisition from the gods, especially if the gods be Dutch masters. But heist movies are often more about the Hermetic transgressions, the threatening of boundaries, both to show us the citadel walls can be breached, and to thrill us by, safely, and with no permanent damage, illustrating how porous our own defensive lines can be. The grand old Met is brought to its knees by Brosnan’s Crowne. And art dealers and experts of every stripe are shown to be fallible by each installment in the canon, just as are the vault doors that keep us out of sacred spaces—but so too are our inner chambers. If we get a kick out of seeing the Louvre knocked over, we similarly like to see someone like us being duped, burglarized or taken advantage of, even if only as a preface to revenge.
This, of course is what heist movies in general and Trance in particular come to be about—theft, and its correlative, vulnerability. In classic film symbolism our most valuable, and thus vulnerable asset is our heart. And, like the corporate secrets of Inception or Irene Adler’s compromising photographs, our heroes hide away this most prized possession in the safest place they know, but still there are tricksters and DiCaprios and Sherlock Holmeses to steal it away. You might say that all heist movies are love stories, if only in allegory, but we the audience are always the ultimate mark and the film we are watching practices the deception, slight of hand and revelation inherent in the job.
In handsome self-reflexivity this makes the film about an art heist an artifact itself. But whereas a film can continue to pay dividends ad infinitum, a work of fine art, at least in terms of market resale, is a zero sum commodity. If I have Rembrandt’s missing Storm on the Sea of Galilee, which plays a part in Trance, and can sell it for profit, you do not and cannot. MacGuffins, like hearts, we understand, are one-of-a-kind. And so the villains, who, in fine heist movie form, are all heroes until they are not, must out-play one another for the singular trophy—keeping in mind that the ultimate goal may change at any moment.
If it sounds a bit piled-on, the film is indeed rather heavily laden, but stops short of labyrinthine plot twists for twists sake—or even of the locking mechanisms of a Chris Nolan movie. No one will call this restrained (I actually anticipate minor outrage at a scene suggestive of rape and castration by gunshot), but it stops short of trying to outwit today’s savvy audiences. If we are to take Boyle at his word that, as he said in introducing the film at the New York premiere on Tuesday, it is all for fun, Trance is a success. After the joyful, life affirming glitz of Millions, Slumdog Millionaire and his Olympics ceremony, not to mention the severity of 127 Hours, Boyle is back in the club, back in the mid-90s, rolling his face off with Spud and Ren-boy, blasting the drums and the bass.
And every now and again all those shifting layers come together for a well-struck moment when the metaphors chime all the way through this maze like the levels of kicks in Inception. James McAvoy, as a Sotheby’s-style auctioneer, sets up one of these when he muses reverently about the classical rendition of the divine in painting. As he explains, for the painters of antiquity perfection was communicated by the feminine form presented with a shaved mons pubis. And no worries if that is all you retain from this reading. I expect the only thing many people will take away from this film is the startling full-frontal nudity of Boyle’s ex-girlfriend Rosario Dawson in recreation of this sublimity.
It is a startling device, a misdirection that also is not a misdirection by a very practiced hypnotist (Boyle, not Dawson), luring us toward the ultimate secret. If, two months, three months after seeing the movie you are a little hazy on the twists turns, you may remember this because it is what the movie is about. When the lights come up the MacGuffin goes away and we are left only with the heart of the matter. Shaved.
Like all trickster stories, Trance is a moralizing one. Hallowed houses are humbled and we are duped so that we may learn. In the end, the greatest trickster, the one with the greatest plan, and often the greatest intentions—the most deserving—will win out. And then the game begins again.
—Chris Wallace / @chriswallace4
Trance is in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles on April 5th