“Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious”, said the British filmmaker and actor Peter Ustinov. His sentiment somewhat describes Swedish director Ernst De Geer’s comedy of ‘bad’ manners, The Hypnosis (Hypnosen, 2023). Somewhat, that is, because while the film takes an interest in serious themes and ideas, De Geer, who was at the 67th BFI London Film Festival to present the film, said that he and his co-screenwriter, Mads Stegger, didn’t think of it as a series of jokes, nor did they try for Hypnosis to be laugh-out-loud funny.
Still, finding humour in the awkward and absurd situations, De Geer and Stegger tickle the film’s audience. The effect is sometimes silent, other times a modest chuckle, but behind its restraint, The Hypnosis is explosively unpredictable. It provokes an occasional outburst that’s fitting of its witty affront to social etiquette, which has an absurd and crude satirical bite.
Entrepreneurial couple André (Herbert Nordrum) and Vera (Asta Kamma August), are invited to Shake Up, a three-day workshop with a pitch coach, before competitively pitching their female health app, Epione, to potential investors. Days before, Vera decides to try hypnotherapy to help her quit smoking. It has unexpected consequences when it positions André, the serious people pleaser, against his newly uninhibited girlfriend.
The changes in Vera’s behaviour are subtle at first. When the couple visits her mother, Vera declines a bottle of water, saying she doesn’t like the bubbles, and helps herself to the bowl of nuts on the kitchen counter. These two seemingly small things draw a surprised look from her mother that suggests a personality shift. Then, when Andre offers to fix the wi-fi, she says to Vera it must be nice to have a handyman around the apartment. Vera rebuffs her mother’s claim that she isn’t tech-savvy, telling her she has fixed things around the apartment, only she has never noticed.
In hindsight, this is one of The Hypnosis’ most important scenes, despite being overshadowed by other memorably awkward, absurd, and crude moments. To reveal specifics would spoil a first viewing, but De Geer and Stegger gradually escalate Vera’s uninhibited behaviour, building to a hilarious and somewhat unexpected conclusion.
Much of The Hypnosis‘ tension derives from how André responds to this surprising change. He has imagined in detail how the Shake Up workshop will go or should go, but Vera’s sudden change of personality is the one problem he couldn’t plan for. Watching Vera disrupt his efforts to keep their performance on track leads to some delightfully humorous episodes. From André realising Vera has gone off script in their first pitch, to pretending she’s sick and replacing her when meeting a potential investor, to Vera dancing drunk to Le Sport’s “Tell No One About Tonight“, the film pops with their comedic interplay.
Growing concerned, André speaks to her hypnotherapist, who tells him that Vera isn’t hypnotised. She’s fully conscious of what she’s doing. She explains to him that hypnosis is only a tool to alter behavioural patterns and it’s normal for someone to compensate for how they’ve lived before. For Vera, who was afraid to stand out as a child, she compensates by turning down her self-conscious dial and empowering her uninhibited side.
Is it the worst possible moment for something like this to happen, or does The Hypnosis‘ black humour dictate that it’s perfect timing? I’d proffer that it’s probably the latter, although admittedly, neither André nor Vera need this type of disruption heading into Shake Up. However, there’s a surprising reaction from the pitch coach, who praises Vera’s honest delivery, which indeed comes across as genuine and engaging compared to Andre’s rehearsed spiel. The coach tells all the entrepreneurs that it’s important to be childish and use their imaginations, and not judge their impulses.
It’s encouragement for Vera, who initiates a game of make-believe at an evening’s networking event. What starts out as the entrepreneurs’ being childish ends with Vera taking things too far. The group becomes uncomfortable, their adult minds silencing their childlike silliness, and even the film’s audience might check out of the absurdity of it all.
It’s as if De Geer and Stegger restrained their story’s self-consciousness, which has no sense of embarrassment. Whereas the audience might expect to align themselves with Vera, instead, some moments distance us from her. The filmmakers respect their audience enough to give them space to be unsure of how they should respond to this character. Unlike the traditional comedy of manners, where we delight in the disruption, De Geer and Stegger actively subvert this dynamic.
The Hypnosis will be experienced as an impolite and provocative gesture towards social etiquette. After all, it hones in on the theme of compromise between social expectations and individual expression, but there’s more to this delightfully entertaining Nordic comedy. Talking after the film’s screening, De Geer pitched is as a love story. While I can see that, I suggest it’s also a coming-of-age story.
Looking back on the scene in her mother’s house, Vera has the presence of an ill-tempered or ill-mannered child who begins to challenge her mother in a way she has never done before. The Hypnosis’ comedy of manners critiques the theme of repression. De Geer is correct that it’s a love story in which André initially struggles with Vera’s uninhibited self but eventually embraces her idiosyncrasies.
However, The Hypnosis is also a story of Vera’s liberation from her mother’s overbearing shadow, which even compromises her pitched product, Epione. Named after the Greek Goddess of soothing pain, it was built around a lie protecting her mother’s integrity. The story is a coming-of-age for the adult Vera, who learns to be comfortable standing out and with her own identity, or so it would appear.
In reality, Vera comes from means. Beyond the shocking finalé, has she genuinely sacrificed everything and claimed, with André, her independence? We can’t be certain, and The Hypnosis might, in truth, be a fanciful dream about entitled or privileged rebellion.
The Hypnosis screened in the Laugh strand of the 67th BFI London Film Festival.