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Tales of Immorality: Side Effects and Trance

Written by Adam Gallimore & Matt Denny.

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“No doubt the truth can be unpleasant, but I am not sure that unpleasantness is the same as truth.” - Roger Ebert

In his Alternate Take on the portmanteau horror film V/H/S, John Bleasdale questions the distinction between a misogynist film and a film about misogyny. In the case of that film, it can be seen as both “about woman hate” and “an endorsement of woman hate via a legitimized woman fear.” When it comes to reading a film, there is no definitive answer and opinion is entirely subjective. What deeply offends one person, another can find extremely perceptive or truthful. To simply dismiss a film, then, for being misogynist or offensive seems like a largely unhelpful notion. Instead, it would surely be more worthwhile to study these forms of representation, how they are shaped and disseminated, and for what purposes. This article aims to examine two recent films - Side Effects and Trance - in order to illustrate how the manifestation of nastiness and, more specifically, misogyny, can be reflected through genre tropes, character archetypes, and self-reflexivity to achieve a variety of resolutions.

Side Effects

In Side Effects, genre is deployed almost as a narrative device to shift the pace and direction of the film; it starts under the guise of a mystery - whose are those bloody footprints in the apartment? Why happened to its inhabitants? What is the significance of the model sailboat? Moving back in time, the film picks up three months earlier, shifting focus from young married couple Emily (Rooney Mara) and Martin (Channing Tatum) to Emily’s psychiatrist, Dr Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), after she drives head-on into the wall of an underground car park. Jonathan sees his life come tumbling down around him after Emily murders her husband, seemingly under the influence of the new miracle drug she has been prescribed, named Ablixa. At this juncture, the film moves from psychological drama into a kind of pharmaceutical thriller akin to Michael Clayton (2007), hinting at the dangerous commercialisation of Big Pharma and the harmful impact of psychoactive drugs on an overmedicated America. However, as Nick Chen acutely observes, “Side Effects has as much to say about mental health and pill culture as Silver Linings Playbook - which is a snarky way of saying not much at all.” Shifting gears once again, the film gives way to Hitchcockian intrigue as Jonathan realises he is being set up as the fall guy in a larger conspiracy he is unable to fully comprehend. Taking the foot off the pedal, the film then becomes more procedural in following his attempts to discover the truth and outwit those responsible for his predicament, and extends into neo-noir territory through its emphasis on the figures of the femmes fatales.


This constantly-evolving structure may be frustrating for viewers who become invested in particular plotlines, but it is a process the film - and its conspiratorial female characters - uses as cover. With this, Soderbergh proves that, like Alfred Hitchcock, Henri-Georges Clouzot and David Mamet, he too boasts an aptitude for the art of misdirection. The film sets up a series of assumptions that are gently disaffirmed or contradicted as the narrative progresses. It is aware of a tension between its generic conventions and audience expectations, asking the viewer to keep in mind moments in the film but neither signposts its developments nor announces its revelations in an overly dramatic fashion.

Jude Law has always been a difficult actor to warm to, and perhaps seems suited to darker, more devious roles. His performance as the serpentine, immoral Australian blogger in Soderbergh’s Contagion (2012), for instance, showcased his sleazy talents in an pertinently entertaining fashion. In Side Effects, his character is pitched at just the right level of educated superiority and unwitting naïveté, and it is this combination that makes him so ripe for plucking. In short, although he is very good at what he does, he is not half as smart as he thinks he is.

It is a playful film, toying with chronology, character and style. Once again acting as his own director of photography (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews), Soderbergh indulges both in the comforts of digital filmmaking and the expressive potential of a drab, melancholy New York City. This detached realist style combines with the urban backdrops to give a sense of the characters’ roles and their states of mind. For instance, in one carefully orchestrated montage, slow motion and HD clarity is used to convey Emily’s content, doped-up condition when the drug works, while shallow focus and diffuse lighting relates her gloom and detachment when the side effects overshadow the drug’s benefits. Soderbergh has occasionally been accused of manipulating form and genre at the expense of storytelling, and here Scott Z. Burns’ clever script is almost unwittingly facile, making the story both more palatable and more disconcerting. For all its incursions into different genres and the cold, impassive style in which the film is presented, it breaks down into a rather modest tale of greed and corruption, one in which no character is capable of salvation.


Some have called Side Effects a nasty film, and this moniker is hard to refute; but does this nastiness derive from the coldness of the presentation and the lack of humanity conveyed through digital detachment, or does it spring from the absence of decency or morally upright characters in the film? Taking a pragmatic perspective, the film’s depiction of real-life degradation is brutally honest, a world in which people have little mutual respect and fail to demonstrate any sense of altruism. Like recent films such as Shame (2011) and Killer Joe (2012), Side Effects is almost entirely populated by nasty, unsympathetic characters, men and women incapable of compassion or remorse. However, this depiction of nasty or immoral behaviour can also be seen as a cleansing experience, a representation of unsparing truthfulness. The film’s atmosphere is evoked through its static compositions, tight framing and expressive use of warm filters, sapping it of energy where Trance goes for visual flair and pounding techno tracks. While this lugubriousness takes nothing away from Side Effects’ narrative propulsion, it instead imbues it with an air of objective studiousness and a Hitchcockian mélange of fear and fascination. Cinema is clearly still in need of filmmakers like Soderbergh who possess such a level of creative intelligence, evincing a considerable gift for expression together with a deep understanding of adverse and deleterious forms of human interaction. The film is a bitter expression of the modern world, absent of hope or redemption; like Killing Them Softly (2012), Side Effects is a State of the Nation delivered with more honesty and integrity than a multitude of political speeches, presented with greater subtlety but lacking in satirical bite.


So what about the victims of this wholesale maliciousness? That it is the character played by Channing Tatum - surely the most charismatic beefcake in Hollywood at the moment - who bears the brunt of this elaborate scheme is significant, both in terms of stardom and masculinity. Taking another leaf out of Hitchcock’s handbook, Soderbergh kills off his leading star (out of the four leads, Tatum’s stock is probably highest right now) in the film’s first act, albeit with considerably less shemozzle than Janet Leigh’s showery demise in Psycho (1960). Refusing to delve into his criminal misdeeds pertaining to insider trading, Side Effects exposes another line of failure: by committing this crime and being sent to prison, Martin has fractured this marital relationship and forced Emily to confront her own future, leading directly due to her clinical depression. Whether the culpability lies with him for not protecting his family or with her for abandoning him so swiftly is ambivalent, but when it is revealed that Emily faked a psychotic episode in order to stab him - repeatedly and, most unnervingly, without emotion - her words of support and sexual understanding are revealed to be painfully, terrifyingly duplicitous. Martin’s stabbing is conveyed as a series of rapid, sudden close-ups, occurring so abruptly and (seemingly) impulsively that the sequence is incredibly effective. The lack of expression on Emily’s face is far more disturbing than any irate manifestation of emotions; at first this is simply attributed to the numbing, somnambulant power of the drug she is taking, but upon learning this was all a performance to exact some form of revenge, Emily’s composed act of mariticide is exposed for all its unalloyed, resolute malevolence.


In the film’s third act, it is revealed that Emily had been working with her former psychiatrist, Dr Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), with whom she had begun a homosexual relationship. Together, they conspired to kill Martin and cause a media storm by blaming her behaviour on the side effects of Ablixa, thus manipulating the drug company’s stock and allowing for a significant financial profit to be made through insider trading. (With an air of dark humour, Emily confides to her boss at the start of the film that, “To some if you say ‘insider trading’ it may as well be murder.”) Once this is revealed, it is hard to comprehend the extent to which Emily’s ruthless and calculating actions have been executed under the guidance of Dr Siebert. Mara’s subdued performance belies the extremely convincing performance of her character, and the film’s exploration of Emily’s fractured identity - evoked in striking visual terms through a shot in which she sees her diffracted image in the mirror of a bar (an image, incidentally, similar to one in Trance) - also holds greater complexity in that this too is all part of her performance. This exploration, however, is no less genuine given that Emily is forced to deal with these conflicting forces in her mind that pattern her behaviour, ones we cannot fully understand until we learn of her character’s true actions and motivations.

Some reviewers have pointed to the misogynistic nature of this twist. It is easy to understand this reasoning given that the characterisations seem so politically incorrect and the plot twist itself is so outdated. However, it could also be argued that this is both deliberate and somewhat tongue-in-cheek. In a way it is redolent of the ridiculous furore that followed the release (and success) of Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992). This controversy resulted from what was seen to be the negative depiction of homosexuality in the film, with some claiming that the representation of a bisexual serial killer had a negative impact on the perception of the gay, lesbian and bisexual community itself. Roger Ebert commented on this controversy in his review of the film, stating that, regarding the allegedly offensive homosexual characters, “The movie’s protesters might take note of the fact that this film’s heterosexuals, starting with Douglas, are equally offensive. Still, there is a point to be made about Hollywood's unremitting insistence on typecasting homosexuals - particularly lesbians - as twisted and evil.”


Indeed, a casual glance at the representation of lesbians in contemporary American cinema reveals a higher proportion of nuanced, progressive explorations of sexuality and identity in films such as Mulholland Drive (2001), Chloe (2009), Black Swan (2010), and The Kids Are All Right (2010) in contrast to problematic portrayals in films like The Roommate (2011). The conscious decision to return to this tired, outmoded and (once) controversial plot twist is therefore an intriguing one. This revelation does make sense in genre terms, being both referential to neo-noirs such as Basic Instinct, and also so passé as to be almost beyond consideration. It is rare to see such a blatant depiction of lesbian sexuality as male fantasy following this extended period of representational progression in cinema, and yet this depiction makes sense when it is understood that is simply in service of the plot - an intentionally sensationalist pastiche of earlier genre forms. It should also be noted that this homosexual undercurrent has another significance given Rooney Mara’s recent depiction of Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), a film about overt misogyny and the hunt for a “killer of women.” In Side Effects, it is the very un-PC nature of the twist that makes it impactful, though not exactly credible. For a film that is so handsome and controlled, and has such a fond and playful sense of genre, this revelation seems almost too banal, too out of place to be a feasible option in attempting to unwrap this mystery.


As mentioned earlier, the role of the femme fatale is central to the film’s noir aspirations. The cinematic figure of the femme fatale is innately misogynist, being a female character who uses her feminine wiles to engage and ensnare unsuspecting male figures in compromising or lethal situations. Mysterious and seductive (both sexually and emotionally), the femme fatale is empowering in terms of the control she holds over men while also being a chauvinist construction in the way in which she is represented as deceitful and coercive, and often depicted in sexual terms. The figure is therefore a highly reductive gender type, and has been sociologically linked to fears of both witchcraft and feminism, concepts that establish and empower the female. Ergo, the depiction of the femme fatale in cinema can be seen as both an example of female independence that challenges recognised gender roles, and also a way of undermining female expression through negative, male-centric representational forms of psychological manipulation. As with all archetypes, the femme fatale can be an oversimplified figure, used to serve the plot as a staple antiheroic character type. This was particularly evident in the film noir era of the 1940s and ‘50s in which the archetype flourished, with carbon copies inspired by influential noirs such as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Lady from Shanghai (1947). However, some films go beyond the cliché and delve into this questionable motivations and forms of representation of the female villain, notably neo-noirs such as The Last Seduction (1994), Mulholland Drive, and Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale (2002).

To an extent, both Trance and Side Effects interrogate and re-evaluate this archetype, even if it is depicted in outmoded and problematic ways (Danny Boyle actually refers to the femme fatale as a MacGuffin here). Like these neo-noirs, Side Effects is less about the corkscrewing plot twists and more about issues of identity and perspective, using archetypes to undermine rather than reinforce convention. By complicating the role of the femme fatale, the film highlights the chauvinistic treatment of women in the patriarchal system of the medical profession. At one point, Jonathan is asked by his partner (Peter Friedman) whether he would have treated Emily differently had she been a man; indignant, Jonathan disabuses him of this notion, but it raises an important question regarding the patriarchal nature of the doctor-patient relationship, and about who is taking advantage of whom in this dynamic. The film uses these misogynistic traits to expose the misandry of the figure of the femme fatale, such as playing on the attraction that Jonathan might have for Emily by fabricating erotic photos to insinuate an intimate encounter. This can itself be seen as a sexist form of representation: depicting women as misanderist is misogynist; depicting men as misogynist, however, seems to be far more acceptable, even expected. This is a troubling paradigm.


Jonathan is selected for his masculine weaknesses but is only able to overcome them through his own moral failings. He tells Emily that he believes she is “a victim of circumstance and biology”; instead, it is he who is the intended target, in his own way a victim of circumstance given his profession and his unsuspecting demeanour. Noah Berlatsky argues that, in the film’s generic mutability, “Noir and its attendant misogyny aren't really the point, in other words; they're just a byproduct of Soderbergh's rage for cleverness.” He goes on to say that the film does not have the courage of its own misogyny: “Catherine Zeta-Jones and Rooney Mara are both ready, willing, and able to overwhelm the film with malevolent gyno-evil, but Soderbergh just isn't quite willing to go there.” However, while Jonathan is neither consumed by lust for Emily nor separates himself from her due to his psychiatric instincts, there is no realistic point at which he would need to refuses the advances - sexual or otherwise - of a femme fatale. Interestingly, he refutes the claims of sexual impropriety from an earlier case, yet this plants a seed of doubt strong enough for his wife to lose her faith and walk out on him. Upon their first meeting in the film, Victoria and Jonathan discuss Emily’s case history: “I’m glad she’s being seen by a man this time,” Victoria says. “That will help.” Law has been targeted, seen as an easy mark for their complex scheme. This is an attack against both his masculinity and his professionalism and, though he triumphs by the film’s end, he has failed on both counts. “We didn’t go looking for you, we just looked at the world,” Emily confesses later. The world is full of dupes, it seems, and he is just the first credulous, sympathetic male doctor that happened to fall into their laps.

While the film might be moving in the direction of ending on a note of pessimistic realism with the evil-doers getting away with their crimes, the false optimism of its conclusion is more potent, emphasising the human cost one must pay to succeed in such a cynical world. While Victoria and Emily are both imprisoned at the end of the film, Jonathan’s victory is decidedly unheroic. He lies and falsifies documents in order to test Emily’s compliance, using his superiority in the doctor-patient relationship - not necessarily the male-female dynamic - in much the same way that Siebert did in order to achieve certain desired effects. Perhaps this is, once again, an old-fashioned return to Classical-era Hollywood wherein the femme fatale has to pay for her misdeeds lest we forget that what she did was wrong. Critics may point to the fact that the women in the film are shown to be evil, crazy or both; but it also depicts men as immoral and corruptible. Martin ruptures the notion of marital trust through his criminal misdeeds, and Jonathan compromises professionally for self-preservation and for the good of his family. The women are manipulative, the men are manipulable; in short, more damage is done to the men in the course of the film than to the women. They are the victims of superannuated desires for money and revenge. Martin is coolly dispatched, stabbed in the back by his adoring wife, while Jonathan, a figure who starts off as innocent, responsible and diligent, has his life pulled down around him one piece at a time. Any sense of sympathy for his character, however, is ultimately expunged when he plays dirty, ensuring that Emily is sequestered to a medical facility where she can be medicated and observed. Yet together these acts by women against men exemplify the film’s pessimistic perspective on the sanctity of marriage, the dissolution of the family unit, and the fallibility of all forms of human relationships.


If viewers myopically take this conclusion as triumphant then they may be overlooking the point. Instead of accentuating the dominance and success of its self-absorbed male protagonist, the film subtly undermines it. The film’s resolution, in which Jonathan is shown picking his son up from school, finally reunited with his wife and child, leaves a decidedly bitter taste in the mouth. It would be too simplistic to see this as a morally justified conclusion, and would require exempting all the ethical sacrifices Jonathan has had to make in order to achieve it. Indeed, although his supercilious smirk suggests that he is getting off scot-free and the good guy can live happily ever, he can no longer lay claim to being the good guy, and the fractures of his domestic and professional life have been exposed and exploited. Yes, he is able to reunify this false paragon of domesticity and salvage his career, but more important here is that he has become morally compromised, a fallen man. He may have outsmarted the killer lesbians, but does not get away clean. This is not a happy ending but a corrupted one, highlighting only the erosion of Jonathan’s integrity in stark contrast to the bright-eyed virtue of his son - perhaps the only figure of innocence in the entire film.

Trance


The short review of Trance describes the film as Danny Boyle’s “nastiest” film since Shallow Grave (1994), but what exactly is meant by the term ‘nasty’? The intended meaning of the term can perhaps be drawn out through a comparison of the similarities between the two films. Both films have three principal characters, and these characters are not (to put it mildly) entirely likeable. Certainly Shallow Grave’s yuppie journalist Alex Law has a certain smarmy charm (he is, after all, played by Ewan McGregor) and Christopher Eccleston’s David is initially sympathetic as put-upon accountant David, but he very quickly becomes a loft dwelling, hammer wielding maniac. The films are violent, too - although I don’t think it’s the violence per se that makes Trance or Shallow Grave “nasty.” It is perhaps rather that both films provide the spectacle of bad people, doing bad things without providing a single objectively moral character with whom the audience may identify. Indeed, Trance forces the viewer to sympathise with perhaps the most morally bankrupt creature in the film, Simon (James McAvoy).


Trance bonds Simon and the viewer quickly and effectively. Simon is not only the first character to appear to the audience; he is also peculiarly privileged, granted both direct address to the audience and a time bridging, montage stitching voiceover. Later, through the various trances, the audience is able to occupy Simon’s mind, and the camerawork and mise-en-scène throughout the film is tied to Simon’s subjectivity (consider the image on the right, frequently used in promotion of the film). Simon is also constructed as a victim, at least initially. He is beaten, bloodied, and tortured, a noir seeker-hero trying to solve a mystery where his mind is the scene of the crime. Simon may initially appear sympathetic, but this sympathy becomes uneasy, unsettled, and downright uncomfortable as the film progresses. To continue the noir analogy, Simon is less Humphrey Bogart and more Peter Lorre: rather than appearing as a good (if compromised) man in over his head and forced into desperate acts of violence, Simon is revealed to be possessive, obsessive, and violent. This shift is largely dependent on Dr Lamb’s (Rosario Dawson) revelation of Simon’s abusive relationship with her, but there are hints of Simon’s monstrousness and sadism earlier in the film too, such as Simon’s glee when he hypnotically tortures Nate (Danny Sapani), and McAvoy’s unnerving laughter as he resolves to gun down Franck (Vincent Cassel) and his henchmen.

The way the film unsettles its noir triangle of seeker-hero, femme fatale, and villain is one of its more pleasing experiments. The reframing of Franck as seeker-hero and Simon as monstrous villain is - like the film itself - well executed, if troubling. This “troublesome” quality derives from the way the film uses its femme fatale. While the male roles are interestingly flexible (if not exactly revisionist), Rosario Dawson’s Dr Lamb is stuck as manipulative, vengeful, and dangerous, using her sexuality to get what she wants and leaving destroyed men in her wake. She at least gets a better deal than Young Woman in Red Car (the IMDb.com credit for Tuppence Middleton’s character) who appears reductively as dream, victim, and corpse. Say what you like about femmes fatales, at least they have agency.

The figure of the femme fatale is the focus for much of generic reworking taking place in Trance and Side Effects, but in comparing the two films it becomes clear that Emily is a far richer and more satisfying inflection of the character type than Dr Lamb. Emily is a dynamic figure, protean and manipulative; as her performance changes so does the very nature of the film. Side Effects explores how the noir Woman is interpreted, the shifting genres signalling each new reading, each change of perspective. Jonathan is a psychiatrist and thus supposedly fairly adept at reading people. Seen in this light, the plot of Side Effects becomes Jonathan’s hermeneutic quest to interpret the mystery that is Emily. For much of the film Jonathan fails in this attempt, so convincing is Emily’s performance. In this way, Side Effects conforms to the well-known pairing of Man as truth-seeker (the “penetrator” of the veil) and Woman as simultaneously truth and concealment of truth. Side Effects engages with the patriarchal overtones of this pairing in a self-aware manner, dramatising the overlap between Masculine quest for truth and its counterpart, the quest for mastery. Jonathan utilises the combined institutional might of Law and Science (medicine) to punish these transgressive women, and he becomes morally repugnant in doing so.


Trance seemingly sets up a different dynamic between truth and truth seeker, feminine and masculine. It is Simon, after all, who most obviously embodies the paradox of truth and concealment, with hypnotherapist Lamb taking the role of penetrative truth seeker. This rather pleasing gender swap is undone, however, by the revelation that Lamb has been concealing the truth all along, and manipulating events through her puppet Simon. This is a rather crass and simplistic summary of the film, but it suggests something of Simon’s real role in the dynamic of truth and truth seeker: if Dr Lamb is the concealer of the truth and Franck the truth seeker, Simon is revealed to be nothing more than the veil concealing the truth. From this perspective, Simon’s various injuries take on new significance - they become attempts to penetrate the veil of truth. Perhaps the best graphical demonstration of this is the x-ray of the drill entering Simon’s skull to drain it of fluid after he receives the blow to the head from Franck.

It is through the interplay between the characters of Dr Lamb and Simon that much of the film’s “nastiness” plays out. This is true both in the revelation of the depths of unpleasantness of which Simon is revealed to be capable (chiefly, but not exclusively, his violence towards women) and the “misogynistic” representation of Lamb. The word misogynistic appears in scare quotes not because I endorse the way Lamb is represented, but rather from fear of the power charges of misogyny have in shutting down discussion. If the representation of Lamb is misogynistic, it needs to be understood how, and why, and what that means. The representation of Dr Lamb is a particularly rich seam to explore in discussing Trance, so intertwined is it with the film’s central concerns of subjectivity and self-reflexivity. These concerns are, rather predictably, dramatised chiefly through a male character.

Trance is almost exclusively told from within Simon’s subjectivity. There are some scenes that would seem to qualify as exceptions, such as Nate’s tortured hypnosis induced nightmare of live burial. The scenes following Simon’s death, too, would appear to be tied to Franck’s subjectivity, signalled by a shot of Dr Lamb that corresponds with Franck’s point of view from the river and the subsequent transition that matches Franck’s submersion in the river to his re-emergence in his private pool. This transference of subjectivity completes the repositioning of Simon and Franck on the hero/villain spectrum. There are other scenes that are not so easy to account for, however. The montage introducing Dr Lamb, for example, cannot readily be mapped to Simon’s subjectivity - unless we are to interpret it as Simon’s idealised vision of her as a healer. The scenes between Franck and Dr Lamb could be read as the manifestations of Simon’s lust and paranoia, but if they are they are not only this. That Simon acquires Franck’s gun would seem to suggest the reality of these scenes, but then Simon is first led to the gun by Dr Lamb in one of his trances (her direction to look in bottom draw is one of the indications that the sequence is unreal). The proliferation of subjectivities and confusion of realities and unrealities all contribute to the film’s ontology of suspicion (or suspicion of ontology). It also prevents the viewer or critic from adopting the position of safety that viewing the misogyny as purely Simon’s would allow. To elaborate: if the film were uncomplicatedly tied to Simon’s subjectivity, the misogyny could be said to be entirely Simon’s. Instead, the proliferation of possible subjective positions (Simon’s, Franck’s, Lamb’s) means that the misogyny is harder to contain or limit to a single source. We have instead a sort of free indirect misogyny, and with it the problem of whether Trance is a misogynistic film or a film about misogyny.


Whether or not the events of Trance are solely the product of Simon’s subjectivity, the representation of women certainly seems informed by his perspective. Simon’s attitude towards women is what might euphemistically be described as unhealthy. He is shown to be obsessive, jealous, violent, even murderous - hating Lamb as much as he thought he had loved her. These are just symptoms, however, of a fundamentally skewed attitude. This attitude is revealed (in a not unproblematic manner) through Simon’s opinions regarding pubic hair. In a discussion disguised as an art history lecture, Simon informs Elizabeth that before Goya, nudes were hairless. Goya’s introduction of pubic hair to world of art is painted as something sacrilegious: the ideal of ethereal transcendent feminine beauty is replaced by something all too earthly, all too real. At the root of Simon’s pubic preference, it is implied, is a refusal to see women as real, as human. Simon is, as Dr Lamb states, in love with an idea of perfection. Simon sees women as nothing more than beautiful aesthetic objects, no different to the artworks it is his job to buy and sell. This is an idea of Woman as something Simon can contain, control, and possess. Simon cannot countenance the reality of Dr Elizabeth Lamb as an independent, thinking, feeling Subject like himself: for Simon, Woman is purely Object. In a way, Dr Lamb’s revenge is entirely fitting: she strips Simon of his Subjecthood, rendering him little more than an Object, devoid of free will. The version of Simon we see in the memories/flashbacks of his abusive treatment of Elizabeth might be a monster, but the Simon that embraces death at the end of the film is not that man. In fact he isn’t even a man anymore, just a hollow shell, an Object. He has become the very thing that he sees women as. As satisfying as this reversal is, it’s hard to forget Simon’s repeated mantra of “no piece of art is worth a human life”, and the ruthlessness implied in Elizabeth’s breaking of that rule.

As noted, however, this misogyny in is not limited to Simon, but permeates the film. This is particularly notable in the scene where as soon as Franck leaves Lamb with his henchman, where it is heavy-handedly implied that they will rape her. Tellingly, this occurrence doesn’t substantially disrupt the logic of the film, it seems unremarkable that these characters would act this way - it’s what gangster henchmen do. That this manner of thinking is even possible suggests that some sort of misogynistic logic is at work. It’s tempting to read this scene as another of Simon’s trances, one that lets him come in all guns blazing and reassert his masculinity by rescuing Elizabeth. The scene certainly plays out that fantasy, complete with Simon’s visceral unmanning of his adversary. Unless we count its hyper-masculine excess, there is nothing that marks this sequence as unreal however, and so we are unable to safely bracket it off as “Simon’s misogyny” and have to question whether it instead belongs to the film.


A further complication to determining whether Trance is a film about misogyny or a misogynistic film is its near relentless self-reflexivity. This raises further questions of how self-awareness functions in relation to misogyny. Trance is a film that asserts its own fictionality in a variety of ways - be it Franck raising the empty frame of Witches in the Air to create a frame within the cinematic frame to enclose his face, through Anthony Dod Mantle’s distorting digital cinematography, or through the very trances themselves. Trance consistently asserts its own createdness, its status as film and fiction. If we consider the three (missing) artworks that feature prominently in the film, each can be seen to suggest a major theme. Goya’s Witches in the Air is a painting about subjectivity and the human mind; the plate of Maja desnuda that Elizabeth tears out of Simon’s art book is responsible for the whole pubic hair theme; Simon’s favourite missing painting, Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, features the artist himself staring out from the centre of the composition, signalling the theme of self-reflexivity.


How then does this self-reflexivity function in relation to Trance’s nastiness? One argument would be that the self-reflexive nature of the film serves to distance itself from itself. It provides distance from what is being said, frames it in big friendly quotation marks that signal that the film isn’t x it’s about x. Think of Paul Verhoeven’s wonderful Starship Troopers (1997), a film so gleefully self-aware it would seem ludicrous to accuse it of being an imperialistic, militaristic film rather than a film about militaristic imperialism. Of course, such ironic distancing isn’t always successful: despite being couched in a time-travel plot that featured Captain Kirk admonishing him for being tasteless, host Seth MacFarlane’s ‘We Saw Your Boobs’ musical number still managed to generate exactly the kinds of damning reviews the sketch itself predicted when performed at this year’s Academy Awards.

It is therefore possible to read the use of self-awareness in Trance as something of a devil’s advocate device. It raises an issue that it doesn’t agree with in order to test arguments against that issue. Therefore, the self-reflexivity of Trance is what shifts the film into the relatively safe realms of being a film about misogyny rather than a misogynistic film. Or rather it would be, if Trance’s self-reflexivity ever granted the viewer something like an objective space exterior to the film. Take the opening sequence of the film: Simon sits in an empty auction house, directly addressing the audience and lecturing them on the fine art of Fine Arts theft. There are a number of self-reflexive moments in this sequence, most notably the use of direct address, but also the cutaway to the black-and-white sequence that illustrates the simplicity of a heist in the sixties. This sequence alludes to a less convoluted filmic past, and signals that Trance will be a departure from this form. The staging of the sequence is also suggestive of a cinema: the rows of empty seats, the light emanating from behind Simon recalling the cone of light from the projector behind the audience. At the very least, the opening sequence of Trance foregrounds the act of storytelling.


The informed and authoritative nature of Simon’s exposition suggests that this sequence is included solely for the purpose of situating the audience. It sets up the simple premise of the film, which will later be complicated. By foregrounding the unreality of the sequence, it appears detached from the diegesis of the rest of the film: clearly not non-diegetic, but at least a separate diegesis. It is safe, detached and trustworthy - a space the viewer can occupy without being soiled by the rest of the film. If this were how the opening of Trance worked (as an objective, empirical, commentary on the rest of the film) then we could readily accept the thesis that Trance uses self-reflexivity to distance itself from its nasty content. However, this is not how the scene functions. Rather than being an objective extra-narrative space that exceeds and precedes the events of the film, this opening sequence is actually one of Simon’s trances, and thus just as muddied, untrustworthy, and subjective as the rest of the film. It is, in fact, the very trance where Dr Lamb programs Simon to steal the painting for her, as is revealed in Elizabeth’s exposition during the car journey to recover the painting. In the montage that accompanies the exposition, the image of Simon from the opening sequence reoccurs only to transition to a similarly framed scene of Simon seated in Dr Lamb’s office as she clicks her fingers to bring him out of his trance.

By reintegrating this opening sequence into the main diegesis, the film denies the viewer the safe objective perspective that self-reflexivity creates. Instead, the viewer is made complicit, an effect heightened by the early identification with Simon. As with Side Effects, Trance is a film with no objectively good or moral character; there is no Atticus Finch or Jefferson Smith to tell the audience what is right and what is wrong. Instead the viewer must rely on their own moral compass. This is made harder through the denial of objectivity - through being drawn into the film - but it also forces the viewer to acknowledge that there is no moral outside, no pure utopian space outside the system from which we can make moral judgements. Finally, both Trance and Side Effects deny the distinction between being about misogyny and being misogynistic - they are both and neither. The distinction is not made by the films, but by the viewer.

This article was published on May 21, 2013.