Toni Erdmann wasn’t the first film to skewer corporate culture, but the epic-length comedy struck a chord with many for how it used a fish-out-of-water conceit to rupture the rigid, dehumanizing nature of that world. It’s likely the first movie that comes to mind watching The Hypnosis, a similarly high-concept tale aimed at deconstructing the social conventions of the boardroom, and whether the pursuit of professional success is of greater concern than maintaining close relationships with loved ones. It proves so similar in thematic interests that I began to imagine an enterprising movie producer buying the rights to the screenplay, giving it a few tweaks, and attempting to make it as “2-ni Erdmann”––although, admittedly, seeing Sandra Hüller experiencing bizarre side effects after an experimental treatment to quit smoking would make for the oddest comedy sequel this side of Weekend at Bernie’s II.
Ernst De Geer’s cringe-com follows André and Vera (Herbert Nordrum and Asta Kamma August, both fantastic), partners in life and business who are in the final stage of honing their pitch for healthcare app Epione, ready to share with investors at a retreat for entrepreneurs. Said pitch is built around a seemingly personal anecdote––quickly revealed to be a complete fabrication––and been cut down to a perfect length, but Vera proves too distracted to be able to deliver efficiently. She cites her inability to quit smoking, and thus books a hypnotherapy session the day before they set off; even with the deadpan tone at this point in proceedings, where the laughs come from André’s thoughtless interjections on how they can make a pitch “lighter,” this hasty decision arrives like a warning bell.
As they start rehearsing in front of other budding business types and the workshop leader Julien (David Fukamachi Regnfors), Vera starts wandering off-script to André’s complete confusion––even stranger, she’s regarded as a natural compared to his awkward, overly stage-managed contributions to the pitch. This is only the beginning of her increasingly erratic behavior, which disrupts every single attempt her partner makes to try connecting with those around him, who are instantly put off by his eagerness to be taken seriously and accepted within the group. Nordrum, at this stage best known outside of Scandinavia for his supporting turn in The Worst Person in the World, delivers a masterclass in silent anxiety, trying his best to fit in while his partner throws all social cues out of the window, somehow managing to read the room even worse than she does.
Although August is tasked with portraying the foil in this odd couple and does her best to ground the bizarre conceits she’s been handed, the laughs are carefully calibrated not to come from her actions, but Nordrum’s reactions. A recurring bit where she pretends to own an invisible dog, for example, isn’t scripted to be particularly amusing on the face of it; the jokes play out entirely via the confused response of a man who loses control of every social situation he’s placed in. As in Maren Ade’s 2016 film, De Geer understands the premise would fall flat if the quirkier presence was overexposed within the drama, and thus carefully uses the moments of disruption to set off an anxiety within its other lead. He builds an atmosphere with the lingering threat that things could go off-script at any second, leaving André with the desperation needed to use any moment alone to pitch himself as a serious businessman.
The comedic dynamic doesn’t expand beyond this, save the expected climactic scene where the rigid protagonist disastrously learns how to live in the moment, but it never becomes a one-note movie. It doesn’t keep circling the same themes of social anxiety so much as it keeps digging a bigger hole for its characters with each new interaction––nothing in the film is remotely distressing, but I imagine many viewers will still feel the urge to have a stiff drink after experiencing it.
The Hypnosis screened at the 2023 BFI London Film Festival.