Are We All in a Trance?

Review of Trance, Directed by Danny Boyle

What is the role of memory in shaping our identity and our motives? This question drives the plot of Trance, Danny Boyle’s (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire) newest film. If you just watch the trailer, you immediately know that the film is not what it seems. There are going to be twists and turns and subplots within subplots that somehow merge into the main plot. But the question posed to Simon (James McAvoy)—and us—is, “Who are you without your memories?”

Without revealing too much (just what you could pick up from the trailer), we can briefly summarize the beginning of the story. Simon works at an art auctioning house that, on this particular day, is selling Francisco Goya’s Witches in the Air. This is also the day when this art auctioning house will be robbed. Franck (Vincent Cassel) and friends are there to steal the Goya painting and they have a plan. They know that Simon will be in charge of removing the piece of art from the auctioning stage, placing it in a protective bag, and dropping it down a chute leading to a secure vault. So they successfully steal the painting and in the process give Simon a good knock to the head.

When Franck finally brings the package home, he discovers that the painting is missing–only the frame remains. Simon must have hidden it, which means he knows where it is. Franck tracks down Simon, but unfortunately, due to that head wound, he has amnesia and has forgotten where he’s hidden the painting. Enter the hypnotist, and hence the name of the film.

To help Simon remember, Franck takes him to a hypnotist named Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) who’s supposed to coax the information out of Simon. And thus we descend into a world where fact and fiction are indistinguishable. Much like Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2001), as each layer is pulled back, a whole new narrative is revealed and characters are no longer who we thought they were, nor are the decisions and motives as wise or unsullied as we first believed.

I think we can all acknowledge that what we remember informs who we are, and leave it at that. With that, what does Trance add to the conversation other than a well-done cinematic experience with amazing actors portraying characters troubled by their past? It disturbs us to see the malleability of our memories and the power of the mind.

(Here I begin ruminations on philosophical themes posed by Trance. If you just want thoughts about the film and whether to watch it, skip to the end.)

I. Malleability of Memory

There is the philosophical skepticism that questions whether or not we can actually remember anything accurately when our very ability to know truth is in question, let alone our ability to correctly perceive our surroundings. Isn’t history merely the story of the victors or the illusions of the defeated? Then there is the more mundane, everyday problem that we have with memory. We remember the things we don’t want to remember and we forget the things we don’t want to forget. Trance flits between both.

In Trance, Simon has repressed memories of repressed memories. This is part of what makes the film entertaining, as it blends action with psychological thrills. The twists keep the audience engaged since they come steadily and culminate. But at the same time we are left concerned that maybe we have forgotten memories hidden in our subconscious that we have unwittingly repressed.

II. Power of Mind

I’m sure many readers of this blog and watchers of the film will have questions about the science behind hypnosis and whether it can have such powerful coercive ability if the patient is willingly put into trance. That’s not a question I can answer. But this points to a broader discussion that has been going on for a long time—which is primary, mind or matter?

There is the problem of the relationship between the mind as an abstract idea of consciousness and seat of the will and decision-making, and matter as the concrete, physical brain or gray matter. There is also the question of how our minds relate with our bodies. Are our thoughts the creation of biological processes? How does what we think translate into physical action? What does this mean for free will? You can see we can get into quite a quandary of philosophical speculation here.

But I want to make a point that’s illustrated in Trance. There’s a scene where Simon is told the fear of one of the characters who has agreed to undergo hypnosis. When someone says the word “Strawberry,” this character begins to grow agitated, then violent, as a memory of being buried alive floods his mind’s eye. He starts writhing in his leather chair with clenched fists and hoarse grunting. Simon enjoys the power and lets it go on for longer than is proper in a hypnosis session.

Francisco Goya’s Witches in the Air

Trance wants to say “mind over matter.” Which may or may not be true. I lack the philosophical training to be able to address the merits or demerits of Berkeley and Hume. But this idea is quite common in our mainstream culture, in spite of the materialistic naturalism that pervades the scientific community. And tie this “power of the mind” to the skepticism about the mind’s malleability and poor memory. There’s great fodder here for a postmodern understanding of history.

III. Scripture as History

We now find ourselves far removed from the movie, but indulge me for just one moment. This issue of memory and the power of the mind figures quite prominently in questions of Scriptural transmission. It’s common to hear arguments against the authenticity of the gospels by appealing to our memory’s fallibility. How could the authors of the gospel accounts truly remember all these details with accuracy?

As Christians, we can affirm the human fallibility inherent in our recollection of events while also understanding the doctrine of inspiration as supernatural. Jesus tells the disciples: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (Jn 14:26). And again, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (Jn 16:13).

Arguments against the resurrection witness accounts often appeal to the power of the mind. The psychological disposition of the apostles and other disciples, clouded by grief, could result in illusions. I’ve also heard the idea that there can be mass psychological phenomena where many people, in the dozens or hundreds, can witness the same illusion. For addressing these issues, I would refer to N.T. Wright’s Resurrection of the Son of God.

Closing Thoughts on Trance

So should you watch this film? I personally think most of Danny Boyle’s films are worth watching and I would keep this one in the “to-watch” list. I enjoy directors who are both entertaining and also ask some bigger questions without being too heavy-handed in the way they do it. Danny Boyle accomplishes this.

There are scenes of torture, graphic sexual scenes, and frontal nudity, so readers should be warned. Some are unnecessarily graphic, whereas frontal nudity surprisingly plays an important role in this movie because it offers Simon one of the hints that leads to the unraveling of the puzzle-plot. Hence viewer discretion is advised.

I don’t expect Trance to make it big at the Oscars like Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, but I can see it attracting a devoted fan base, as most films that alter our sense of reality tend to do. I’m interested in what other folks think of Trance; so if you watch it, please comment and let me know what you thought.

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