Norwegian cinema has been enjoying a moment lately, what with Joachim Trier’s crowdpleasing The Worst Person in the World pulling up to Drive My Car in the Oscar race and Kristoffer Borgli’s Sick of Me carving out a rep on the festival circuit. The Hypnosis, Ernst de Geer’s feature debut, sits somewhere between the two of them, fashioning a fitfully funny relationship drama that tilts at some very modern windmills (coaches, gurus, new-tech start-ups, workshops that involve blue-sky thinking) within a framework similar to Kristian Levring’s 2008 Danish drama Fear Me Not, in which a man’s personality changes after he becomes addicted to an experimental drug. The Hypnosis doesn’t quite follow that film’s melodramatic course, but there are similar thoughts raised about the human mind.
The two leads are André (Herbert Nordrum) and Vera (Asta Kamma August), a young middle-class couple who are launching a women’s wellness app called Epione, after the Greek goddess of health, based on Vera’s experiences growing up as a hemophiliac. The pair are excited to be invited to a pitch weekend called Shake Up, run by the patronizing but oddly charismatic Julian (David Fukamachi Regnfors), where they will get a chance to put forward their project to a panel of potential rich backers, and Vera thinks this would be a good time to address her smoking habit. This she does by visiting a hypnotherapist, who digs into her personality and her issues (“I feel like you’re holding back”), and floats the interesting concept that “maybe the smoking isn’t your problem”.
For a film called The Hypnosis, this scene is relatively brief, but the title casts a long shadow over the film just as surely as if it was called Chekhov’s Gun and sets up an anticipation — or rather an expectation — that works against what it is that the film does best. Which is to explore the dynamics of a couple who, having set up a viable and wholly ethical business together, suddenly find themselves at odds when it comes to the process of delivering it. André, used to his partner being more malleable, doesn’t take kindly when Vera begins to talk back to him, notably when she sabotages André’s attempt to impress Julian by claiming to have read a book he’d recommended. “It was so damn boring,” she chides him. “It really demanded that you really read it,” André counters, somewhat desperately, before Vera reminds him that he never actually finished it.
Julian is a key figure in the movie, since it’s really him, and not the eventual backer of the project, that becomes their focus — or perhaps it’s just André’s focus. After the hypnosis session, Vera seems to have become a whole new person, someone entirely unpredictable. At group sessions she playfully invents an imaginary dog, which André, and others, go along with, until it becomes something much darker (and, to be honest, a little bit too much even to be sustained by the film’s so-far workable comedy of unease). André responds in a way that could only be comedic in a Scandi or Nordic setting by drugging Vera just enough so that she’ll miss the keynote pitching event.
Sadly, although — and this is quite unusual and something to be treasured these days — The Hypnosis has all the elements for what it’s trying to do, it just doesn’t really come to a satisfying ending. As the story unfolds, the initial interest is with Vera and her new, unfiltered personality, but then André unexpectedly becomes the focus of the second half, trying to rescue what’s left of their dream (Nordrum’s understated performance won him the festival’s Best Actor award, which was by no means an obvious choice). It soon becomes clear that going to be tough to reconcile these two character’s trajectories convincingly, and, inevitably, the film doesn’t really manage it. But De Geer’s film at least goes into the gray areas of human behavior and like both the Triers (Joachim and Lars Von) makes poking holes in kind of obvious middle-class mores an unexpectedly enjoyable spectator sport.
Title: The Hypnosis
Festival: Karlovy Vary (Crystal Globes Competition)
Director: Ernst De Geer
Screenwriters: Mads Stegger, Ernst De Geer
Cast: Herbert Nordrum, Asta Kamma August
Running time: 1hr 38 min
Sales agent: Totem Films