If Lars von Trier hadn’t become top-heavy with the mythology of his self-importance (I’d say that happened around the time of Antichrist in 2009), he might have made a film like Sick of Myself – a social satire in the form of a queasy body -Horror dramas and a film reminiscent of von Trier’s “The Idiots” with a touch of David Cronenberg in its disturbing bad-boy tastelessness. This is the second feature film from Kristoffer Borgli, the Norwegian screenwriter and director whose first film ‘Drib’ (2017) was hyped by the marketing industry and in a way the new film is also about marketing. However, this one offers a disturbing look at just how far an individual will go to gain attention in the new era of social media addiction.
The film, which premiered in Cannes last year, comes from the same production team that went on to help ‘The Worst Person in the World,’ and part of the unconventional way the film gets its hooks in you is by to exude a very similar sort of neutral observation Scandinavian bourgeois vibe. Also set in Oslo, this one is about a younger couple living together: Signe (Kristine Kujath Thorp), a barista with an anxious, pensive aura, and her boyfriend Thomas (Eirik Sæther), a handsome aspiring artist with an indulgent temper towards the public Shame. Early on, the two are sitting at a restaurant celebrating Signe’s birthday when Thomas takes the opportunity to run off with a $2,300 bottle of wine just because he can. His art draws on a similar impulse: he builds it from stolen furniture and creates installations just hideous enough to give him his next big moment.
But “Sick of Myself,” for all of Thomas’ self-absorbed showmanship, is Signe’s story, and she’s such a wallflower of the spirit that it takes audiences a while to realize what’s going on with her. When a pedestrian who has been bitten on the throat by a dog stumbles into the cafe where Signe works, she nurses her and perhaps saves her life – a Samaritan act, though Signe ends up gloating over the attention. She was bitten by the virus of notoriety. At a dinner party with Thomas, she improvises a way to increase the spotlight: she fakes a nut allergy attack, her closed-throated coughing fit sucking up all the energy in the room.
At this point, let me say right away that I came close to writing the film off. This fake allergy attack is something only a deeply insane narcissist would do, and Borgli as a filmmaker has failed to prove in any way that Signe is such a person. If “Sick of Myself” were a “psychodrama” it might have to be said that it lacks a crucial element of persuasion. But while the film isn’t fantasy, it’s a horror film that operates on a dizzying logic of the grotesque that’s hard to argue with because it hits you so deeply. It really is a monster movie, with Signe as the monster who, like Dr. Jekyll, or the Wolfman, undergoing her own stunning transformation.
Addicted to the new ethos of exhibitionism that allows her to compete with the navel-gazing of Oslo art-world celebrity Thomas, Signe stumbles across news about a Russian-made anti-anxiety drug called Lidexol, which has had a disastrous Side effect that causes rashes that look like blotchy arteries to erupt right out of your skin. Signe knows a drug dealer, the nervous Stian (Steiner Klouman Hallert), who can get anything for you on the dark web. He orders her a delivery of Lidexol, and as soon as she gets her hands on the big yellow pills, she starts popping them. They have a sedative effect (her eyelids droop in the middle of the day), but then, as if on cue, the rash comes, like a reddish flower stalk growing on her arm and face. At first it could almost be a tattoo. Then the ridges get deeper and uglier. Then she looks like an accident victim. It’s “Night of Living Disfigurement”.
In the old transformation horror movies (and most new ones), the hero is essentially a victim. He or she doesn’t choose being a vampire or a slasher demon or whatever. But Signe chooses to become the biomedical elephant woman of Oslo, and the horror of that choice – which one Is psychological – is the dramatic motor of “Sick of Myself”. As Signe, wrapped in bandages, becomes an object of sympathy in her circle, but by God’s grace, then a kind of public sacrifice, then news, then even bigger news, which we know – and which no one else does – is that she chose to look like this. She embraces disease over health. She chooses a kind of deformed martyrdom over the even more intolerable terror of anonymity. She’s a tabloid monster now. But she’s also a star!
Most horror movies have teams of visual effects artists dreaming up the latest digital craze, but Sick of Myself’s visual effects team, led by makeup artist Dimitra Drakopoulou, pulls off something understated and artful. They make the slow caustic degeneration of Signe’s face something squeamish and real. Kristine Kujath Thorp gives a spooky performance under this makeup; she shows us how Signe is trapped in a misery that also feeds her. “Sick of Myself” pushes ever further into a kind of deadpan depravity. As Signe rises to fame, her image goes hip, embraced by the new pulse of inclusion in fashion. She’s part of the marketing campaign for a new genderless clothing line (shooting a commercial to pounding dance music, staring at the camera and saying the line, “It doesn’t matter means it suits me. It doesn’t matter”). There’s a touch of didactics in the satire, but if Sick of Myself is worn around the edges, the film touches on something: how Signe is using the sick image she’s created to replace herself. Because she thinks she has no self.
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