Film Reviews

Trance & Rust and Bone

Published April 6, 2013

In a recent poll sponsored by HMV, Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996) was voted the best British film of the past 60 years. Although such surveys have an unhappy resemblance to those ‘Greatest Hits of All Time’ polls run by commercial radio stations, Trainspotting deserves the kudos. It was a brilliantly original movie which sealed Boyle’s international reputation.
That reputation has been confirmed by the success of Slumdog Millionaire (2008), and last year’s extraordinary production of Frankenstein, broadcast around the world as part of the National Theatre Live program. There was also the small matter of the opening ceremonies for the London Olympics.
With such a record, any new feature by Danny Boyle arrives with great expectations. I wish I could say Trance does not disappoint, but it is a story with so many twists and turns it will leave many viewers bewildered. What is true, what is false? Who is the villain, who the hero? Is this happening in someone’s mind, or in reality? In brief, we are obliged to spend far too much time trying to unravel a convoluted plot. Not that we have minutes to spare – Boyle drags us along at such breakneck speed it is like being chained to the bumper of a fast-moving car.
The ‘background’ music by long-term Boyle collaborator, Rick Smith, is loud and insistent. The action unfolds frenetically, amid generous helpings of gore, violence and nudity. It’s a volatile mix, as it is much easier to watch Rosario Dawson removing her clothes than to watch James McAvoy having his fingernails torn off.
Art theft and hypnotism are the major themes around which the story revolves, and both are treated in a manner that will make the experts wince. The movie begins with a heist, as armed villains interrupt an auction in London to steal a painting by Goya, reputedly worth some £20 million.
The picture, by the way, is Witches in the Air (1797-98), from the collection of the Prado, Madrid. No less confronting than a Danny Boyle movie, it shows a man being airlifted in darkness by three warlocks wearing pointy dunce’s hats, who gnaw at his flesh. If this painting were miraculously released from the Prado it would probably fetch more than the £20 million estimate, but without a specific buyer there would be little point in stealing such a work. It is too wellknown to be sold, let alone displayed.
One of the employees of the auction house, Simon (James McAvoy), plays the hero and tries to get the painting to safety. He gets belted for his trouble by the gang leader, Franck (Vincent Cassel), and suffers a head injury.
Yet when Franck eventually opens the picture case, it is empty. The painting has disappeared, and only Simon – who was in league with the thieves all along – can say where it is.
When the hoods grab Simon for interrogation, they find the knock on his head has interfered with his memory. Even under torture he can’t remember what he did with the work. Franck resorts to hypnotherapy, sending Simon off to see the glamorous Dr. Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson). From this point the tale becomes increasingly twisted. Dr. Lamb, whose medical ethics are somewhat unorthodox, wants to be included in the deal. Her ideas of therapy and customer relations include going to bed with her clients, and humouring a fetish by shaving her pubic hair. Not many specialists provide this level of service. From a psychoanalytical perspective, it gives a new twist to the process of ‘transference’, whereby the patient forms an attachment to the analyst.
Fearing for his life, and deranged by sexual obsession, Simon jettisons his mild-mannered persona. The last part of the film becomes an orgy of violence that builds up to a powerful crescendo.
Trance promotes the worst clichés about the art market and about hypnotism. If there is a hypnotherapists’ union they should be outraged by this portrait of their profession. Yet the fictions of the popular cinema never need abide by the rules that apply in everyday life. Despite its delving into the mysteries of the mind, this movie is no more than an elaborate entertainment. It compares poorly with another current film about psychotherapy – Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, which creates a sense of suspense without the excessive sex and violence.
Soderbergh’s cool, sophisticated approach produces a script and characters that are believable, while Boyle gives us an adult comic book. None of the personalities in Trance are even vaguely plausible, and the actors respond with suitably overheated performances. One wonders if this film was put together in a hurry while the director prepared for his Olympics extravaganza. It’s a roller coaster, not only in the ups and downs of the plot, but because it leaves one feeling slightly queasy.
If Trance represents a hiatus in Danny Boyle’s glittering career, Rust and Bone shows Jacques Audriard as a director at the top of his form. Over the past 18 years, Audriard has made six features, all of them critical successes. The two best-known may be Read My Lips (2001) and The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005), but there are no duds in his back catalogue.
Rust and Bone tells the unconventional story of Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), a killer whale handler who loses her legs in a feak accident, and Alain – or Ali – (Matthias Schoenaerts) a drifter whose only talent is for fighting. Both are damaged people. Stéphanie has to learn how to re-enter the world with her maimed body, while Ali has the more demanding task of accepting there are consequences to his actions. For most of the film he lives just as he pleases, never thinking of others. In the beginning this casual attitude is exactly what Stéphanie needs to drag her out of the ditch of depression and self-pity. As the story progresses, Ali’s indifference becomes a problem that is only confronted as a consequence of a traumatic event.
It’s not that Ali doesn’t have responsibilities. He travels from Belgium to Antibes with his 10-year-old son, Sam (Armand Verdure), for whom he is a sole parent. We tend to think of Antibes as a rich place, but Ali’s sister, Anna, (Corinne Masiero), lives a hand-to-mouth existence working at a supermarket. When Ali comes to stay, he is happy to hand over most of the parenting to his sister as well. He gets a job as a bouncer in a nightclub, then works for a security form.
During his stint at the nightclub he meets Stéphanie, whom he drives home after an incident in which she gets a bloodied nose. At this stage she is able-bodied. It is only after her accident and recovery that she rings Ali, looking for a friend.
Ali’s major interest is combat sport, and he is quick to take up the offer to participate in illicit bare-knuckle bouts. He is as casual about these brutal fights as he is with everything else, describing them as “fun”. Failing to discourage him, Stéphanie goes along to watch, and finds herself, on prosthetic legs, in the midst of an audience of male hoodlums. It is another rite of passage for her, another tie that unites her with Ali.
In contrast to Trance, a film redolent with overstatement and overacting, the characters in Rust and Bone hardly venture to discuss their relationship. Ali comes to see Stéphanie when he is “OP”, meaning “operational”. They have sex but never define themselves as a couple. Ali’s love life continues as it always has, in a series of brutal, fleeting encounters with any available woman. Stéphanie fears putting a name to her feelings, as if the loss of her legs gives her no right to expect loyalty.
Audriard handles this situation with such delicacy it is as if the camera hesitates to intrude on the private feelings of the characters. The most poignant aspects of the tale come from what is left unsaid. He tells the story in properly cinematic terms, in a series of striking images. The first comes when Stéphanie, soon after her discharge from hospital, decides to face her insecurities and go for a swim. After Ali carries her into the water she strips off her top and floats ecstatically in a sea blazing with reflected sunlight.
In another memorable scene she returns to the whale tank and beats on the glass until one of the Orcas comes nuzzling up to greet her. It’s a moment of catharsis and of acceptance, combined with the surreal sight of the whale responding with recognition to her presence.
Even the shots of the wheels of a truck surging along the highway, produce a compelling image of Ali’s flight from responsibility. Rust and Bone is full of these touches, which transform a potential soap opera into a superior example of the filmmakers’ art. Not only does Audriard provide scope for Cotillard and Schoenaerts to shine in the lead roles, he resists every temptation to turn drama into melodrama.
I wish I could say the same for another movie released this week – The Host, by New Zealand director, Andrew Niccol. Having made excellent films such as Lord of War (2005), that never received the acclaim they deserved, Niccol has taken a deliberate commercial turn in this new film, based on a Stephenie Meyer novel for teenagers. The result is a story that goes gooey where it needs to be clean and cold; where the characters look like fashion models, and the dialogue is utterly wooden. It’s bound to be a raging success.
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Trance, UK, rated MA 15+, 101 mins
Rust and Bone, USA, rated MA 15+, 102 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, April 6, 2013