Director: Kristoffer Borgli
Stars: Kristine Kujath Thorp, Fanny Vaager, Eirik Sæther
Not to get all judgy – to use modern parlance – but here’s a slightly worrying trend I’ve noticed in others when it comes to watching movies, where the quality or worthiness of the work is deemed commensurate with the likability of the main characters. It’s as though there’s a nebulous criteria for engaging with art and entertainment, and if this isn’t met, then whatever it is is rejected. This reactionary stance raises a number of questions about the purpose and motivations of our watching in the first place, but more keenly it seems to reflect how mainstream TV and cinema has conditioned portions of its audience to accept only that which can be deemed relatable. Including, it seems, its characters.
Kristoffer Borgli’s Sick of Myself will repel such dismissive people in droves. We’re proffered an acidic black comedy that rides belatedly into the UK on the coattails of Nordic crossover success The Worst Person in the World – a title that might just as easily have been applied here. Meet Signe (Kristine Kujath Thorp), an Oslo barista whose fight for attention in her relationship with narcissist Thomas (Eirik Sæther) is turning into a losing battle. Thomas is an artist whose penchant for stealing furniture has garnered praise from the bourgeoise. His fame blooming, Signe barely gets a look in anymore, and early scenes see her wreaking dark havoc at a dinner party in a desperate attempt to recapture the limelight. It is only a prelude for what is to come.
A narcissist herself, the situation is simply unacceptable. A clickbait news article provides her an extreme solution. Signe deliberately starts taking a strong, illegal pharmaceutical drug which has been banned because it causes a severe skin disease. Popping pills in a gleeful frenzy, it’s not long before her skin starts to blister and separate. Signe is poised immediately for selfies, even as she evades a genuine diagnosis – and treatment – in order to perpetuate her new mythos.
Sick of Myself takes no prisoners, and the more galling Signe’s behaviour can be the better. One imagines Julia Davis (creator and star of Nighty Night) might wholeheartedly approve. Indeed, the film’s UK quad boasts praise from such stalwart provocateurs as Ari Aster and the king of crass himself John Waters. Signe’s behaviour is loathsome, and Borgli wrings comedy out of some grey-area subject matter (blindness, support groups, animal cruelty), some of which risks making the movie itself seem like a narcissistic cry for attention.
Yet it remains pacy and playful, and there are interesting, worthwhile questions brought to the surface by Borgli’s nest of vipers. How social media and the need for ‘likes’ and approval might have warped the priorities of a generation. What constitutes beauty. What constitutes exploitation. Who in society is deserving of pity and who are we to even create such distinctions in the first place. The film also works as a rather unflinching character study. When Signe resorts to playing the victim she is quite promptly dismissed, but her drastic plea for attention does stem from a clear mental health issue.
In that sense this is quite pointedly a film about self-harm, one which doesn’t shy away from squeamish detail or gut-wrenching consequence, and which doesn’t give its brazen protagonist a free pass. It isn’t quite in the league of Marina De Van’s shocking masterpiece of self-cannibalism In My Skin, but it similarly illuminates a specific, morbidly relatable mindset. Kristine Kujath Thorp is wonderful, commanding the entire piece, showcasing whip-smart comedic timing without sacrificing a sense of truth. ‘Funny’ performances tend to get overlooked, but hers is worth counting among the year’s best.
As her health nosedives and the film plunders further cringe-inducing scenarios, it does run the risk of making us sick of Signe. There’s a punchier final act out there somewhere. But in the main this is a gut-busting critique of contemporary society with a wide-range of targets. Borgli presents it all cleanly, with the typical style and elegance of European art-house cinema, but keeps his audience squarely in the firing line. The make-up department also deserve a curtain call for creating something consistently believable; a visible, readable map of Signe’s narcissistic psychosis that’s written all over her face.
Hilarious, revolting and risible, Sick of Myself is a treat for black hearts and a challenge to those who see acceptance in only the most noble protagonists. Good luck to those folks. Signe will fuck your shit up.