Sick of Myself, the sickly comedy from Norwegian director Kristoffer Borgli, begins with a measure of artistic innocence. Two struggling artists steal a bottle of expensive wine and tell the story to partygoers hours later. They both want the credit, to have the room’s collective eyeballs to be facing in their direction. And when one of them, Signe (Kristine Kujath Thorp), doesn’t receive any attention, her disgust is visible. Her frown worsens and she begins spouting about the necessity of narcissism, a conversation that might not seem dissimilar for anyone currently in creative fields.
As her boyfriend, Thomas (Eirik Sæther), achieves a level of success, that frown continues its perpetual downturn. Then Borgli’s initial comedy is off to the races, pivoting into something much darker, much more horrific. Signe craves approval, craves attention in such a way that feels like the worst parts of someone coming to the forefront. It’s perpetual action in hopes of recognition, late-20s social media usage, and unreserved boredom in its most painful form. The film becomes more amorphous, juggling genres as it seeps further into body horror, as Signe’s face looks increasingly marred.
Borgli’s second feature puts narcissism at the center. It never lets up on the gas, never rests until Signe’s vision of her future comes to a conclusion. Any sort of nagging voice inside one’s head simply doesn’t exist in this reality. It might be funny to laugh at this couple’s combined egoism, but it quickly delves into a sad state of affairs, a desperation that diverts one’s attention away from the car crash occurring on the screen. In fact, Signe’s actions prove to have the opposite effect on the audience for Sick of Myself. The harder she tried to be noticed, the less I wanted to look.
Yet the film remains highly watchable courtesy committed performances, impressive practical effects and makeup, and the interest in watching a story that doesn’t feel nearly as outlandish as it should. Signe will remind each viewer of someone they know––someone who, on a much smaller scale, might need the spotlight, might create fictions, and might even exacerbate the symptoms of their life for group sympathy. Borgli taps into a measure of societal truth with this film, a blend of comedy and intentional body horror.
With the film now in limited release, I talked with Borgli about that blend, the necessity of conceit in making art, and the mystery of the creative process.
The Film Stage: What drew you to explore the trait of narcissism in young people?
Kristoffer Borgli: I was just locating some things within me and people around me that just felt stronger than ever. I noticed that it was something about an urban life and competitiveness within me and my friend groups. The idea that if a friend of mine succeeds, a little piece of me dies. There was a real feeling that was generated: really negative feelings from seeing people you actually like and love succeeding, and you’re not having it. That’s a really negative trait. I wish I didn’t have any of it and wish it didn’t exist, but I felt like I was succeeding in filtering for it and not having to act upon or never expressing those feelings. What if someone just didn’t have that filter? Or, even worse, what if there’s a couple who’s just living inside of this constant feeling? What kind of outcomes will that produce?
Do you find that feeling more obvious in the art world, in the film world?
I remember living when I shared an apartment with another director in my mid-20s. And I just remember late night, if I could hear him typing on a script inside of his room, I felt like “Oh, that’s okay, I guess that means that I have to be writing now,” constantly feeling bogged down––this exhausting feeling of constantly being in a race. And it exists in any creative field, I think, or maybe even every career field. So the art world element actually came from another place. It was these real stories from Oslo and from a little group of people that were stealing their way to a fancy life. Expensive design furniture and wines and even placing them in a secret, hidden way in their gallery exhibitions. These were real stories and I got very intrigued by it and started doing more personal research inside of this group of people, and I thought it was its own movie. But then I just combined that with this other movie I had about this girl who was failing upwards into the modeling industry. Once those elements were combined it made even more sense as a story. So the art world felt like it chose me more than I was arbitrarily just picking a creative field.
Photo by Bjarne Bare.
It becomes harder and harder to root for Signe throughout the film. How do you go about directing a performance of a main character that’s unlikable?
It was about thinking if you took away your own personal filters and breaks, and letting a character paint themselves further and further into a corner and tracking the long, painful process there, but never, never letting her step down from her personal integrity. Not going for a cheap joke or anything, letting her stay in the truth and the drama of her life. Not too dissimilar from, you know, in Fargo. The character there, he follows a bad decision with another bad decision until he ruins his own life. And the lives of his wife and her parents. And, you know, it doesn’t go well for anyone. It felt like that type of story. It felt like someone driven really, really far to the point of no return. Another inspiration for this is King of Comedy and Robert De Niro. Rupert Pupkin, you know, is insanely committed to his goals, and never, ever veering off that path. That was the intention from the beginning.
How did you decide how far to take it? How far to take her plans?
How this whole story came about was that I’ve had an interest in the aesthetic uncanniness of prosthetics and body horror, but never really loving the tone of body horror movies. So I had this image in my head of a blonde, privileged Oslo girl with a horrific skin disease, which was in my head as something that was like a setting and a tone of a visual aspect that felt like there was tension there. But I didn’t know what the story was until around 2017, when I started writing the script. I noticed the sudden and big shift in the fashion industry, where the main focus was inclusivity. And stepping away from old beauty standards and letting in new body types and new faces be front-and-center of their campaigns and magazine covers.
And suddenly I saw a story in a current cultural context. So it was this blonde girl that I’d seen in my head: now she has to travel all the way to end up in the fashion industry with this horrific skin disease. And the movie, it’s filling in all the blanks between the start and the end. So that’s what I’ve always said from the start: I knew where it was going to end.
How did you find that balance between horror and comedy?
I felt one of the interesting elements of this project was carving out a new space, a new tone that I hadn’t really seen, that dealt with body horror that shows up in a Woody Allen movie or something like that. It was one of the first intriguing ideas in my head. And I think I’m just naturally drawn to darker comedy or satire. So that wasn’t even my attempt; it just happened naturally. But I think the very specific idea was to have a familiar play on a comedy-drama that takes a hard turn at the middle of the movie and becomes something else, suddenly infested by this skin disease.
Did you have any other ideas on how to get to that finish line, or was it always pills leading to skin disease?
That image and the skin was something in my head already. And the script process was making sense of that image––more than trying to decide on where to go or how to come up with a story from nothing. It was making sense of something that’s nagging at me, almost like the story is choosing me.
Is that something you felt with previous scripts?
Trying to map out the creative process, every time I start something––it’s mysterious. How do I come up with an idea? How did I do it last time? I have no fucking idea. It’s every time starting from scratch. But I do find that it often starts with a feeling that’s abstract, and then I’m trying to make sense of why this is intriguing to me. And then slowly you start making sense of it. And slowly you can start sharing ideas and communicating what is interesting to you. But in the beginning it’s just an abstract feeling.
Early on, Signe says something to the effect of, “Narcissists are the ones that make it.” Where did that line come from?
It actually came from a conversation I had with a friend. And there was another friend in our friend group who had suddenly gotten massive success. We were talking about this person––who I won’t name––being a narcissist, and that it seemed to work for this person. Combine, basically, a very strong belief in yourself with a talent and an opportunity, and suddenly you have the recipe for success. I think we had that conversation of, “Is it necessary? Or will it help?” It came from an actual discussion that we had.
And where do you think you landed on that? Do you think that it is helpful?
Obviously it can make you the President of the country. So it is. It’s a trait that is very efficient, but not necessary. There’s a lot of narcissists who are miserable and not successful, too. So it’s not a prerequisite. I think I side with the other character in the film on this topic, but it is undeniably a part of the success for some people.
Do you think that the couple, Signe and Thomas, deserve one another? Do you think one of them is actually worse than the other?
I think what keeps them together is the fact that they probably are equal-level bad and no one else would accept that type of behavior. They just found a perfect partner who has the same bad traits, and thus they create this bubble of normalcy around that. But I think what Signe does is that: she’s her own worst enemy because it seems like she is the one taking all the hits. She’s suffering the consequences of her behavior more than anyone else. And I think she does more extreme things, but to herself. It might be hard to quantify what’s worse, but I think Signe is more extreme, but she is more extreme to herself.
Sick of Myself is now in limited release and will expand.