“Narcissists are the ones who make it".
Premiering at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and earning a nomination in the Un Certain Regard Section, Kristoffer Borgli's Sick of Myself is a Norwegian black satire on the ills of today's media culture and the relentless quest for other people's attention that ultimately becomes the determinative factor in many young people's lives, leading their behavior, sometimes with disastrous effects. The film tells the story of a young couple, Signe (Kristine Kujath Thorp) and Thomas (Eirik Sæther) both of whom are constantly antagonizing each other in terms of how successful or famous they are according to their peers. What begins as a quiet drama, interpolating a special brand of humor -harsh and ironic in its spirit- evolves to a full-blown body horror picture, owing its influences to the work of the subgenre's undisputed master, David Cronenberg who has recently made the bold declaration that "surgery is the new sex" (Crimes of the Future/2022). Cronenberg's oeuvre is mostly consumed with certain themes such as the relationship between modern technology and the human body, the link between pleasure and pain -explained through the concept of jouissance, a term extensively explored by the French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Jacques Lacan-, as well as issues concerning mortality, identity and the human condition. The characters in the film are the absolute personifications of jouissance and especially Signe who doesn't hesitate to damage her health severely to acquire some precious viral fame around the social media universe.
The Oslo-born director, who is also the screenwriter here, has certainly studied several of Cronenberg's films in order to pinpoint what makes them so bizarre and disturbing, nevertheless thoroughly appealing to the international audiences. Sadly, his second attempt at directing a feature film, the first one was the 2017 movie Drib, fails to deliver as it falls victims of its own screenplay's simplicity that verges on hollowness and the charismatic performance by the lead actress and the beautiful cinematography by Benjamin Loeb are not sufficient to redeem the production as a whole. The film's message, or morale if you prefer, is so transparent and uncomplicated that it takes away from the audience the joy of pondering on the main motifs and decoding the movie's subtext, a cardinal sin that, more or less, is what defines Sick of Myself. The two main protagonists are a couple and also extremely egotistical, borderline narcissistic, and they cannot stand the success of the other despite the intimate feelings that purportedly bond them. Thomas is an artist and a kleptomaniac, creating installations using stolen designer furniture from stores. Signe lives in the shadow of her rising star of a boyfriend, working at a bakery and leading a rather humdrum circadian existence.
The director sets the film's tone in the opening shots of the movie, showing the couple during some of their outings in restaurants and the camera captures Signe's tensed facial expressions as she is piqued by the interest that the others are showing regarding Thomas's work as an artist. The latter is close to becoming a celebrity as he is about to give an interview to a prestigious magazine, something that makes him even more negligent to the needs of Signe who finally decides to do something radical to upturn the dynamics of her relationship with Thomas once and for all. She makes an online research on a Russian drug called Lidexol that has some of the most horrifying side effects imaginable as it seems to destroy the skin tissue, causing a dismal-looking rash on the whole body. Signe asks her supplier, who usually hooks her up with Ritalin, to get some Lidexol for her and when she receives the yellowish tablets, she begins chewing them like caramels. Soon, her skin becomes infected, to the point that it is necessary to apply bandages to her face and certain body parts, creating a freakish image of a young woman who is doomed to live without a visible face, thus making any form of social contact and the forging of new relationships an impossibility.
The film's problem lies not in its main theme per se but rather in the inadequacy of a screenplay that is oozing with overly simplified didactics and plain, borderline implausible characterization, rendering both Signe and Tomas as two egotistical beats, forever lost in their selected mindframe of relentless self-absorption that leaves no room for meaningful interactions with anyone but themselves. The eternal crusade for the perfect image that will be subsequently projected to millions through the use of contemporary media, earning the coveted 15, or rather more than that, minutes of fame for the subject, is one of the director's main concerns as it is also the "the fetishisation of that image of success, and how striving for the perfect image can destroy you." as Nikola Jovic remarks in his review of the movie published on Eye For Film. As you can imagine, this cannot smoothly develop into a solid foundation for a satire to be built upon and the audience vainly anticipates something deeper that will probe them to use their wits and realize new dimensions and parameters in the much-explored and debated main theme. Peter Bradshaw concludes in his review published in The Guardian: "The moral lesson about online narcissism and envy is clear enough, and the frisson of despair is present, although there is something strident and clumsy in the way it is executed.", an observation that reflects my own thoughts as well.
Sick of Myself is not entirely devoid of any merit, the most prominent being the performance by the lead actress playing Signe, Kristine Kujath Thorp who has also starred in other Norwegian films such as Ninjababy and The Burning Sea and proves here that she is one of the most promising nativke headliners who will, hopefully, make their presence all the more noticeable in the future. Kujath Thorp's presence outweighs, in terms of acting skill, that of her counterpart, Eirik Sæther who remains, nevertheless, inside his character and provides some great comical moments, mainly due to his arrogance and fake sentiments towards Signe that are manifested in various ways, especially during the first half of the movie's runtime. The cinematography by Benjamin Loeb also belongs to the production's heavy artillery as the camera, note that Sick of Myself was shot on 35mm film, arrests many alluring stills of the city of Oslo, mainly during daytime and with the sun shining, while the close-ups to the faces of the main characters mends some of the screenplay's flaws as far as characterization is concerned. A special mention is owed to prosthetic make-up designer Izzi Galindo, who creates a Cronenbergesque image of the -bandaged from head to toe- infected Signe. To conclude, Borgli's latest feature is not the movie that will prompt you to think about the issues at hand, nevertheless remains watchable due to its great optics and outstanding lead performance by Kujath Thorp.