Trance (15) 101 mins ***In the House (15) 105 mins ****
Fresh from warming our cockles with the Olympic opening ceremony, Danny Boyle wants to mess with our minds. Trance is a film seemingly designed to shuck off this director’s recently adopted mantle of cuddly, Slumdog-peddling national treasure – and instead remind us of the energetic iconoclast responsible for the visceral one-two of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. Where that Games opener evoked a fixed and certain sense of place, Trance depends on us not knowing where we are exactly. It begins on familiar turf – with a London artworld heist – and thereafter charges headlong towards disorientation.
We’re in a near-future London, for starters: one just different enough to be disconcerting, where characters we might think inhabit entirely separate worlds instead rub against one another, intimately, aggressively, sometimes both. Vincent Cassel’s masterthief Franck snatches Goya’s “Witches in the Air” mid-sale, knocking auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy) unconscious. Rapidly hailed as a hero, Simon is dispatched to Dr. Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), a hypnotherapist charged with restoring his memory, but she permeates everybody’s head – unsurprisingly, as Dawson’s features could get a man to give up a painting, their sanity, anything.
We’re dealing with a violently bad case of transference sparked by a potentially false memory, and Lamb only encourages it: “I’ll admit it’s not conventional practice”. That’s Boyle’s credo, too. Narrative and logic soon go broadly separate ways; dialogue and sound come adrift from the image. Often we have only the stars, radiating charisma, to guide us. Think Rififi as remixed by Nic Roeg, that master of modish trippiness: it’s intended not to last but to jolt, Rick Smith’s pulsing score and Jon Harris’s razor-sharp edits speeding us around amid the hailstorm turbulence of Simon’s cranium.
Are we moved, though? Not quite. Amused and bemused, yes; psyched, weirded and grossed out, often; stirred and chastened by the critical depiction of the male psyche as a dark hinterland of fried breakfasts and Barbie-doll fantasies, certainly. Emotionally, however, this is very much cool Britannia. Trance may not be enough for some, and will be too much for others: squeamish viewers might prefer last year’s Ruby Sparks, which tackled similar control issues without the putrefying corpses and full-frontal nudity. Still, many – this viewer included – would now grant Boyle an Olympic Park-sized free pass to make any film he likes. Judging by this sinuous strip of pure cinema, he most likely could.
With In the House, French writer-director François Ozon continues his project to reframe or redress conventional narratives: you may recall his 2002 musical murder-mystery 8 Women, or 2004’s 5x2, with its love-match played out in reverse. Here, he’s telling two stories, one born of the other. Jaded writer-turned-teacher Germain (Fabrice Luchini) has had his interest piqued by the one pupil of the Lycée Gustave Flaubert who can string a sentence together. Each week, Claude (Ernst Umhauer) turns in a piercing anecdote drawn from a classmate’s home – handwritten A4 sheets that, like a Dickens serial, keep everybody on tenterhooks.
Not for the first time chez Ozon, an outsider will be spotted inveigling themselves into bourgeois households. Claude’s vivid, gossipy descriptions of the classmate’s blokey father and bored mother provide compulsive bedtime reading for Germain and distraction-hungry wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas). Each element starts to comment on every other. Germain ponders whether to intervene when Claude starts to stray in too deep: should he encourage the boy to seduce the mother in the interests of a racier narrative? Or – as a responsible adult – does he caution restraint? What is it we want from our stories?
Ozon effortlessly swats that canard about writing not making involving cinema, partly through his superb cast, but mostly by inspired composition: in correcting the story’s direction, the teacher remembers he can change the course of a life. We, too, become eavesdroppers, hearing Ozon initiate a dialogue with his younger self, and strive to tell an affecting story while critiquing his own wilder impulses. “C’est du Barbara Cartland!,” exclaims Germain as one of his protégé’s drafts takes a turn for the florid. One of French cinema’s foremost enfants terribles here finally grows up: this elegant and eloquent film weighs its words and images with commendably mature precision.
Trance is in cinemas nationwide; In the House is on selected release.