The Hypnosis Review: An Uncomfortably Funny First-Hand Experience of Second-Hand Social Embarrassment

There are certain moviegoers who can face onscreen murders, maimings and the grisliest of mutilations and scarcely bat an eyelid, but who feel every cell in their body die a little whenever a character is rude in a restaurant. If you happen to suffer from this condition, consider yourself warned about Swedish director Ernst De Geer’s feature debut “The Hypnosis” — a witty, incisive satire on the modern obsession with self-actualization, which is also, to those of us with heightened sensitivity to social awkwardness, 98 masochistic minutes of second-hand squirm. Many’s the film offered up as evidence for Roger Ebert’s often quoted assertion that cinema is “a machine for creating empathy”; fewer are the titles, like this one, that make one question if that’s necessarily a good thing. 

Vera (Asta Kamma August) is carefully rehearsing her English-language pitch opener for Epione, a noble-sounding app that does something or other regarding women’s health in developing countries. Her life and business partner André (Herbert Nordrum, last seen ecstatically blowing smoke into Renate Reinsve’s mouth in “The Worst Person in the World”) listens intently. Perhaps Vera’s tone is “too heavy?” His fears are quelled by pragmatic mentor Lotte (Andrea Edwards), who declares that the pair are ready for Shake Up, a weekend of workshops on which they’ve won a coveted slot. There, they will hone their pitch alongside several other hopeful do-gooder entrepreneurs (“Water! We need it! We drink it!” begins a typical rival schtick) before finally presenting it to potential investors.

Together, Vera and André seem the very model of idealistic-to-the-point-of-naive millennial optimism — an impression enhanced by DP Jonathan Bjerstedt’s crisp images, washed to laundry-freshness in cool Nordic light. But there’s one small thing. Vera is annoyed at herself for not being able to quit smoking and books a session with a hypnotherapist. She emerges still a smoker, but floating and serene and changed in ways that manifest at first as benign: heightened self-confidence when facing the backhanded sniping of her wealthy, well-connected mother; a sudden playfulness; even the timidity in her eyes is replaced by a more assertive, frank gaze. 

At the chic hotel, during seminars and mixer events, Vera’s oddball energy gets her admiringly noticed by Julien (David Fukamachi Regnfors) the odiously self-regarding workshop guru. But for André, Vera 2.0 is an increasingly perplexing proposition, wrongfooting him during their joint presentations and behaving erratically in social situations where he is trying his painfully sincere best to fit in. Cue some of the most deliciously torturous scenes as André, whose mounting panic is perfectly underplayed by a terrific Nordrum, attempts to compensate for his girlfriend’s more lunatic excesses. One particular sequence, where he ingratiates himself into a dinner with the investors while perched on a chair that’s too high, is as wincingly accurate a portrait of failing to read the room as you could hope to witness. 

That the script, co-written by De Geer and Mads Stegger, shifts focus from Vera to André might be an issue if both actors weren’t so in concert, even when showing the schism that Vera’s epiphany opens up between them. August never softens Vera’s swerve into unpredictability; at times she is almost monstrous in her disregard for the humiliations she’s casually visiting on her hapless partner. But she also retreats — often literally — into the background as the reactions and motivations of an increasingly befuddled André come to the fore. This allows De Geer to open up inquiries into modern masculinity, as André, complacent in his allyship credentials as the frontman of a feminist startup, eventually does an unforgivable thing to save face. The film also addresses the nature of millennial virtue-signalling, especially during one hilariously passive-aggressive exchange between André and another participant that boils down to oneupmanship over the relative importance of women’s rights versus climate change.

Meantime, Vera won’t stop miming imaginary chihuahuas and helping herself to wine glasses full of milk from the hotel bar, before finally showing up in a whole new persona. There are definite shades of Maren Ade’s peerless “Toni Erdmann” here: It, too, features a character whose reckless disregard for social norms causes deep stress to a straitlaced loved one. But unlike that touchpoint, De Geer’s film never suggests that Vera is doing any of this for André’s own good. Hers is a selfish voyage of discovery and for the most part André is churned up in its wake, along with his values and his sense of himself.

Right up to its finale — with perhaps the sweetest scene of deliberately exposed micturition in recent memory — “The Hypnosis” is acidly clever as it zeroes in on a key relationship quandary in our age of mandatory therapeutic self-revelation: To love someone is surely to want to help them become the truest version of themselves. But what if that version turns out to be a bit of an asshole?

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