The luxury of awfulness: Kristoffer Borgli’s Sick of Myself
Tommaso Tocci is an Italian freelance film critic currently based in Paris. He regularly covers the European festival circuit writing for Italian and international publications. He is a programmer for the Saas-Fee Film Festival and has worked for Berlinale Talents and the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Cannes 2022: It feels so apt that Norwegian director Kristoffer Borgli, on stage in a crisp suit at Cannes and wresting the spotlight away from Thierry Fremaux himself, called his feature debut Sick of Myself a ”toast to the assholes”.
Preparing the audience for its Un Certain Regard world premiere, he was encouraging them to distance themselves from these characters, and at the same time celebrate them without shame. We should laugh whenever we want through the film, he said; it’s ok. The only thing we shouldn’t do is not laugh.
Seamlessly proceeding from its director’s impromptu manifesto, Sick of Myself opens on a bottle of red wine at an upscale restaurant – a $3000 one, to be precise. The bottle is the lynchpin of a fragmented, disorienting scene. It’s a source of embarrassment when Thomas (Eirik Sæther) takes it from the waiter’s hands to pour it himself, and a cause of confusion when a moment later he’s seen running with it from the restaurant, while his girlfriend Signe (Kristine Kujath Thorp) looks on. Celebrations, Borgli is showing us, are never sincere and often end badly.
The scene also tells us that Borgli is comfortable with tip-toeing along the lines of what is real and imagined, courtesy of a trim and lively editing style that minimizes the perception of temporality from one scene to the next. And as well it should, given that we quickly descend into the rabbit’s hole of Signe’s mind: it’s a place of intense narcissism and insecurity over the lack of attention from anyone around her – starting with Thomas himself, an aloof conceptual artist who’s also a bit of a kleptomaniac. Equally as self-obsessed as her, he has at least the prospect of an upcoming exhibition of his work to hold on to for validation. Signe, who is quick to point out the exhibition will only take place at a pop-up gallery and not the real thing, works at a café and feels desperately outgunned.
But are narcissists really ‘the ones who make it’? Borgli seems to argue that it doesn’t ultimately matter, since everybody here is a narcissist and only self-destruction awaits at the end of the line. Sick of Myself ranges from showbiz satire to an intimate evisceration of power struggles within a relationship. It’s lively and full of momentum, perfectly leveraging Borgli’s skills as a director of shorts and music videos and the experience of making Drib in 2017, a piece of work so conceptual that the nuances of documentary vs. mockumentary get lost under multiple layers of meta-irony.
Simultaneously the deepest irony and the laziest hook into the film is its coincidental arrival on the scene right after last year’s success of Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World, a connection that will loom large as Sick of Myself makes its way to international audiences. It will be because of the shared production team at Oslo Pictures, and because of the lasting influence of Trier’s latest that no Norwegian films will be able to escape for a while.
And yet Borgli’s film is also in many ways a bizarro-world, grotesque version of a similar story dealing with similar themes, with a better literal claim to Trier’s title as well (even at its brisk 96 minutes, Sick of Myself is exhausting in the sheer awfulness of the characters). There is even a direct call-back in one of the film’s most effective scenes, which sees Signe imagining a doctor (played in a cameo by Anders Danielsen Lie, whom the whole world now knows to be a doctor in real life) who gives her a diagnosis of a terrible character and a severe case of not being the coolest at parties.
Moments like this attest to how Borgli’s film is strongest when it looks inward rather than outward. When it exposes the self-humiliation these characters long for in their day-to-day lives, and when their vulnerability is allowed to emerge to complement and balance the caustic detachment of the satire. Signe and Thomas are such an abstraction of a couple that the one time they seem to connect physically and emotionally, it cuts deep and true: while in bed making love, she tells him to “ask me again how I’m doing”.
By contrast, as the story unfolds, and Signe resorts to abusing anti-anxiety Russian pills known for their brutal side effects, our protagonist gets what she wants. Now ‘exceptional’ in her bleeding, scarred face, she’s catapulted into a world of luxury fashion, fake inclusivity and celebrity culture that’s immensely easier and less interesting to make fun of. Everything is meaningless because it’s surface-level, like the suddenly ubiquitous logo-ed sweaters alluding to French status symbols – the Cannes Film Festival itself, Paris Fashion Week, la Sorbonne.
Add a splash of self-referential indulgence (Borgli appears in a later scene as a director shooting a video of Signe, even executing a camera movement that echoes the zoom he uses throughout the film), and it’s clear how Sick of Myself can run the risk of peddling in empty cynicism. At times it resembles the cinema of Ruben Östlund, who in another coincidence premiered his latest Triangle of Sadness in the Cannes competition just a day earlier. Here’s another film exploring the modeling industry that begins with a couple dining out at a fancy restaurant, keeping a lid on the awkwardness only to burst out in wildly unexpected directions in the second part.
Both films – and indeed both directors given that Östlund’s Palme d’Or winner The Square from 2017 also had its own parallels to Sick of Myself – raise the question of where exactly satire can be directed to without misfiring. Perhaps it’s not that this satire is cheap but rather that it’s not original, despite Borgli’s largely successful attempts at crafting a film that feels truly contemporary and cutting-edge in many ways (costumes and production design consistently seem to get to the truth of a scene before the film itself does). Aside from the nuances of cultural specificity compared to the Swedish director, there is an element of generational difference which allows Sick of Myself to express a fresher, more chaotic energy even when it’s making fun of something as trite as the ‘culture of today’ in privileged, decadent Western democracies.
Beneath the provocation, the theme of how we frame the narrative of ourselves is central, especially in the early stages where vitriolic conversations among friends surround Signe’s well-written progression from attention-seeking to deranged, and from a traumatic incident which plants the idea of suffering as the ultimate status-giver to experimentations with a fake nut allergy and ultimately to taking the pills. Every line is a savage put-down, each encounter a new possibility to claim some outrageous lie about one’s steady rise to the top.
It’s here that Borgli’s screenplay echoes another recent Norwegian title: Itonje Søimer Guttormsen’s impressive feature debut Gritt, which dug deep into the idea of blatantly misjudging one’s own limitations as aspiring storytellers within Norway’s cultural industry. Perhaps, both films seem to realize, the narcissists are not necessarily the ones who make it – but they are the ones best positioned to withstand the abuse while you get there.