Trance – Danny Boyle and the philosophy of memory and identity. (film review)

It should be no surprise that given the importance of it on the psyche and formation of identity that philosophers and scientists have been discussing memory for as long as philosophy (and biology) have existed. These days, memory is broken down into three components in an attempt to better understand it. These are: habit memory, personal memory and factual memory. Habit memory is, for example, the way you always ‘know’ how to get home from work. Personal memory is the way you remember things that have happened to you, and factual memory is the memory of facts that have been decided by the world we live in – for example 1 + 1 = 2.  There are immediately obvious problems with these definitions of course. For example, is the fall of the twin towers a personal memory or is it a factual memory?  It is these problems that concern philosophy, and in the case of Trance, Danny Boyle as well.


Trance is written by Joe Ahearne – my guess is after extensive reading of Being and Nothingness, because the themes of the film play heavily into the Sarterian idea that memory is portrayed as a creative force that reconstructs experience rather than mimics and repeats it and also because of the concept of free will that Boyle uses in the film – that is that memory can inhibit and interfere with consciousness and obstruct freedom.  Simon’s (James McAvoy) ultimate cry, made several times in the film, is “I have free will”, a very existential concept and one that Sartre spent a life time examining. Boyle and Ahearne want us to ask ourselves if it is ever possible to have free will while we are oppressed with the burden of memory. Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) explains Simon’s amnesia as a ‘decision’ his subconscious has made to step out of reality because he has great fear. She explains to Franck (Vincent Cassell) in one of the key moments of the film, that memory provides the building blocks for who we are. It is our memory that recreates us over and over and reminds us that we exist. It is this very concept of identity that Danny Boyle wants us to confront and examine in this very interesting film.

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Trance may not be Danny Boyles greatest film.  I’ve never been that turned on by the idea of Slumdog Millionaire  nor have I seen 127 hours, the two most famous of Boyles recent films. I love (like everyone) Trainspotting.  I will have to take a good look at his other films now, because Trance is easily the best film I’ve seen so far in 2013.  It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and its classy appearance and neo-noir thriller facade make it look anything other than philosophical, but it deals with an extraordinarily complex subject in a compact, fascinating way.  It is spectacularly written, and very well acted. I’m a “girly fan” of James McAvoy (Whats not to love?) and of course every red-blooded female loves Vincent Cassell but I confess Rosario Dawson was a total blow out – she straddles the fine line between intelligence and i’m-just-here-’cause-I-look-good-naked very well, never quite spilling over into bimbo territory, making concepts such as sleeping with a patient seem deep when they could easily occur as deeply silly. Above all, however this is Boyle and Ahearnes film with a nice healthy does of existential memory examination tossed in, so the philosopher in me was happy as well – something that rarely happens in a main stream cinema experience these days.

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Boyle is really clever here.  Its the kind of film that might be a little too clever for its own good. Like that other brilliant, famous memory film, Memento it uses killer plot twists to keep the audience on the edge of their seat, and like Memento it is very successful in this task. However, unlike Memento, it includes the audience in its game – something very few films dare to do these days. It suffers for this conceit in the judgement placed on it by reviewers and at the point of this review, with box office returns. But it is worth it.  Again, like Memento, it will be remembered for its courage and I do believe enjoyed as time goes by with multiple viewings and the possible resurgence of existential themes in philosophy.

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These are very complicated ideas portrayed so well, they can make the viewer ask themselves to do a double take on what they just ‘saw’ or what they ‘remember’ from the film. In this way, Trance has four characters in the lead – Elizabeth, Franck, Simon and you, the viewer. Your ‘experience’ of the film becomes essential to how it is played out.  This can end up being a frustrating experience   It isn’t all laid out for the viewer as happens in so many films these days and you do leave the cinema wondering if you really saw what you remember seeing.

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In this way, Trance has it all over the other film it is being compared to, Inception (like Memento, A Christopher Nolan film). I didn’t enjoy Inception that much – I found it oversimplified and far too easy when it should have been more complicated. Plus  dreams just aren’t as interesting philosophically as memory.  Dreams never make us question the notion of free will, no matter how many times Leonardo DiCaprio tries to claim they do. Memory has the power to make us question ourselves without adhering to sci-fi concepts, and in this way Trance ends up leaving the cinema with you as you ask very complicated questions about who you really are and how much of your life you can really claim for yourself.