by director Danny Boyle

Trance is part heist movie, part Amnesia thriller, part femme fatale Noir. Binding together these disparate genres is a story of a charismatic hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson) hired to dig into the fragile subconscious of a fine art auctioneer (James McAvoy) in an attempt to find a priceless painting: a Goya that he has stolen but stashed he knows not where following a violent assault at the hands of his criminal associate (Vincent Cassel) in the aftermath of the heist. A film that seems to be about a stolen painting but is in fact about stolen memories, Trance uses hypnosis to journey into the mind and explore ideas of identity, madness and perception.

Hypnosis can be used quite ethically to treat any number of common problems—it can help people quit smoking, or to overcome anxiety or eating disorders. It has more extreme clinical applications too: many women now give birth under self-induced hypnosis as a means of controlling pain without the use of drugs. Normally agonizing dental extractions can be performed without inflicting any suffering on the patient in certain highly suggestible people. ‘No brain, no pain’ is the clinician’s mantra, meaning that it is in our minds and not in our bodies that we generate our experiences of pleasure, and pain, of memory and desire.

It is thought that 5-10% of the population is highly suggestible. These people are known as ‘virtuosos’. Tell them in trance that they will forget the number 5 and they will count ‘1,2,3,4,6’; tell them they are blind and they will feel blind; tell them to forget their most cherished memory and it will vanish; implant a false memory and they will recall it with extraordinary vividness and conviction.  You can see why hypnotically-induced witness testimonies are not admissible in court: a talented clinician can make a virtuoso subject do more or less...anything...

Trance is fiction—we want it to be a pleasure, a puzzle, an exhilarating ride—but while events described in the movie may be deeply unethical they are nonetheless clinically possible. “I have free will”, says McAvoy’s character “Don’t I?” By the end of the movie he’s not sure…and neither should you be.

Thank you to all the virtuosos out there for reminding the other 90% of us of what we too often forget: that we each of us make and re-make ourselves on every day and in every way in our own imaginations...

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