Issue 73 (2021)

Valerii Todorovskii: Hypnosis (Gipnoz, 2020)

reviewed by Justin Wilmes © 2021

gipnozSixteen-year-old Misha Tereshin is a sleep walker. In the opening scene, his mother Katia watches as he exits the apartment into the street in the middle of the night, eyes closed and deep asleep. Desperate to find a solution after several failed attempts to treat the malady, Katia (Ekaterina Fedulova) sends him to the famous hypnotist and psychologist Dr Volkov (Maksim Sukhanov). Arriving skeptical at his first appointment, the highly rational Misha watches captivated as Volkov holds several subjects in a deep hypnotic state, guiding them through a swim in an imaginary ocean. Misha (Sergei Giro), however, is determined “unhypnotizable” and declares his desire to be in complete control of his life. Sensing the boy’s unusual intelligence and interest in his experiments, Volkov takes him on as an apprentice of sorts, and soon enough Misha is trying out methods of hypnosis at home on his little brother Vasia, which work to alarming effect. In the course of his visits to Volkov’s laboratory, Misha becomes infatuated with another of the psychologist’s subjects, the pretty, slightly older Polina. The two spend a couple of memorable days together before Polina disappears, much to Misha’s dismay. At first told by Volkov that he had, in fact, been hypnotized and Polina was merely a figment of his hypnosis, Misha suspects foul play and believes Volkov is somehow responsible for Polina’s death. A mystery and psychological thriller unfolds in which Misha and his brother try to discover what actually occurred.

Hypnosis is the twelfth major film of Valerii Todorovskii, one of Russia’s most prominent post-Soviet directors. His previous work—highlighted by The Lover (Liubovnik, 2002), Hipsters (Stiliagi, 2008), the hit mini-series The Thaw (Ottepel’, 2013), Bolshoi (2017) and Odessa (2018)— reflects a remarkable range of interests and aesthetics, and is undoubtedly one of the most impressive filmographies among contemporary Russian directors. To his credit, in Hypnosis Todorovskii continues to explore new thematic and generic territory. As the director states in interview, the film’s genesis can be traced to his own childhood when, as a 12-year-old, he was brought to the famous Soviet hypnotist Vladimir Raikov to treat claustrophobia. From these meetings, young Todorovskii became fascinated, not only with the figure of the famous hypnotist, but also with hypnosis as a phenomenon, which he explores in this film some 47 years later. He enlisted Liubov’ Mul’menko, a talented young scriptwriter known for The Hope Factory (Kombinat Nadezhda, dir. Natal’ia Meshchaninova, 2014), Another Year (Eshche odin god, dir. Oksana Bychkova, 2014) and Fidelity (Vernost’, dir, Nigina Saifullaeva, 2019), to develop the idea into a script.

gipnozThe film raises the unsettling question: Would one, in fact, know if one had been hypnotized? Convinced he was immune to hypnosis, but later told the opposite, Misha (and the viewer) struggles to know what actually occurred during his sessions and in the events that unfold around him. Todorovskii stated that he wanted to make a film with an atmosphere of uncertainty throughout. In doing so he employs the ‘epistemological twist’ which classic directors such as Alfred Hitchcock used to great effect, and which have since been overused to the point of cinematic cliché by contemporary directors such as Christopher Nolan (Momento, 2000; Inception, 2010; Interstellar, 2014; Tenet, 2020).

gipnozWhile Todorovskii’s technical competence—cinematography, editing, casting—is on display yet again in Hypnosis, the film that ultimately results is not entirely successful. Whether poorly conceived or poorly developed, Hypnosis suffers from a rather muddled composition. Its various plotlines and overtures to genres remain largely embryonic, ultimately leaving the viewer confused and unfulfilled. One wonders: Is this a film about the relationship between parents and children, as is suggested, though never really developed, through the role reversal of Misha and his irresponsible parents? Is it a meditation on rationality and irrationality, control and submission, as the juxtaposition of Misha and Polina suggests? A scientific tale about the ethical problems of psychological experiments (Misha declares indignantly near the end of the film, “I am for experiments without victims!”)? Each of the film’s key ideas is hinted at, gestured to, and only superficially explored before shifting to something new.

gipnozFar be it from this reviewer to criticize experiments with genre and theme. However, it seems Hypnosis is one such experiment that fails to artistically cohere. In addition to its meandering plot, the film also slips into various contrivances which strain its credibility with the attentive viewer. For example, acting as Watson to Misha’s Sherlock Holmes, Vasia elaborates theories about Polina’s disappearance and Volkov’s test subjects, none of whom he has ever met. Ultimately, I agree with critic Anton Dolin’s assessment, who writes:

Hypnosis cannot seem to embrace either a Hitchockian thriller, where rationality would have the final victory over apparitions, or Lynchian surrealism, where the border between dream and reality are dissolved altogether. The very interesting, convincing and lively characters confusedly meander through this labyrinth of mirrors, essentially going in circles, and not progressing one iota toward resolution. As if the director himself could not decide whether he believes in the mysterious power of hypnosis (Dolin 2020).

Among critics and the public there were some forced attempts to read the film socio-politically, as an allegory about the “hypnosis” of contemporary Russian society under Putin. Responding to this, the director insisted that the film is multivalent, a “conundrum” that can be interpreted any number of ways (Anon 2020b). The film premiered in October 2020 at the Moscow International Film Festival and its theatrical distribution prompted only muted reactions and a composite rating of 5.8/10 on KinoPoisk. Hypnosis can be viewed as an interesting experiment personally for Todorovskii and an attempt to expand the boundaries of Russian genre cinema. But in the context of this director’s filmography it is a relatively forgettable work.

Justin Wilmes
East Carolina University

Comment on this article on Facebook

Works Cited

Anon. 2020a. “Seans razoblacheniia: Gipnoz.” 17 October. YouTube. Industriia kino.

Anon. 2020b. "Valerii Todorovskii i Dmitrii Bykov o fil'me Gipnoz." Novaia Gazeta. YouTube. 8 October.

Dolin, Anton. 2020. “Gipnoz — misticheskaia drama Valeriia Todorovskogo o granitse sna i real'nosti.” Meduza 6 October.

Hypnosis, Russia, 2020
Color, 112 mins
Director: Valerii Todorovskii
Scriptwriter: Liubov’ Mul’menko
Cinematography: Jean-Noel Mustonen
Editing: Aleksei Bobrov
Composer: Anna Drubich
Producers: Valerii Todorovskii, Natal’ia Drozd-Makan,
Cast: Sergei Giro, Maksim Sukhanov, Polina Galkina, Ekaterina Fedulova, Sergei Medvedev, Stepan Sereda

Valerii Todorovskii: Hypnosis (Gipnoz, 2020)

reviewed by Justin Wilmes © 2021

Updated: 2021