To Be Ugly: A Conversation on Kristoffer Borgli’s “Sick of Myself”

Signe (Kristine Kujath Thorp) looking striking in Kristoffer Borgli’s Sick of Myself

“Narcissists are the ones who make it,” declares Signe (Kristine Kujath Thorp) at a house party she attends with her budding art star boyfriend Thomas (Eirik Sæther) in Kristoffer Borgli’s Sick of Myself. This statement, tossed off with a cigarette, lays out both Thomas and Signe’s modus operandi, as well as the point of the film: malignant narcissism. Unable to resist the promotional image of Signe with her face bandaged–or the promise of John Waters’s coveted cinematic endorsement, your cofounder Emily Colucci and faithful contributor Jessica Caroline immediately sought out the film as soon as it finally saw its U.S. release and had a chat afterward: 

Emily Colucci: We meet Signe and Thomas as they are dining and dashing with an over $2,000 bottle of wine and it just gets more berserk from there as Signe begins to take fistfuls of dark web-procured Russian meds with some serious disfiguring side effects. Why? For attention, of course! Those rashes, sores, and pustules bursting all over her face and body give her what she desires—the spotlight! It’s no surprise that we both came to Sick of Myself through the recommendation of John Waters’s “Best Films of 2022” Artforum listicle. Sick of Myself runs parallel to the headline-and-glory-seeking antics of Female Trouble’s Dawn Davenport (Divine). It also helps that, for a time at least, Signe’s facial wounds bear a striking resemblance to Dawn’s post-acid attack. You half expect Signe to boast, “I’m so fucking beautiful. I can’t stand it myself!”

But she doesn’t. And that’s one of my problems with the film. While I found Sick of Myself perversely amusing, I was disappointed in some ways. Mainly, I wanted Signe and Thomas to have much more fun in their maniacal attention-whoring depravity! Sure, there are parts that are fulfilling in this regard. Take, for instance, the shots of Signe glamorously smoking a cigarette in a wheelchair outside the hospital with her face completely covered in bandages like the Invisible Man. Beauty attained! Or, one of my favorites, the memorable sex scene in which Signe demands Thomas fuck her while weaving a narrative about her funeral and who won’t be allowed in the door! Hot! And yet, for the most part, even Signe’s wild delusions of grandeur, dreaming up book deals and i-D Magazine covers, which appear suddenly, making it difficult to discern what is reality and fiction in Signe’s world, return to a baseline emotional flatness after these flights of fucked-up fancy. Thomas is the same way—they’re both sort of blunted and blasé. 

JC: Neither of them seem to enjoy themselves beyond the thrill of a dine-and-dash or a collaborative shoplift. They’re stunted–they’re like five-year-olds in adult bodies. Signe could have lifted a few more pages from Divine/Dawn’s black little heart playbook, though she is perhaps closer to Bruno Dumont’s clout-chasing celebrity news anchor France de Meurs (Léa Seydoux), in the way they’re both these self-pitying caricatures who do some risky stunts. Both of them check out from society and go on a holistic retreat. Then, there’s Todd Haynes’s hypochondriac Carol (Julianne Moore) in Safe, this idea of having an incurable and mysterious condition, a psychological neurosis that manifests into physical symptoms like boils on her face. Carol also joins a New Age cult, to little revelatory effect. It does seem inevitable that we’ll talk about Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness and The Square, since there’s overlap there…

EC: There’s a lot of stylistic overlap with Östlund. Borgli captures the same golden sunny Nordic beauty as Ostlund. Their dual fixation with making every shot look pristine—even at its most revolting, whether projectile vomiting in Triangle of Sadness or facial wounds cracking in Sick of Myself—seems to undermine the bonkers abjection inherent in both of their plots. I wanted much more of a visceral psychotic romp! More body horror! 

Signe (Kristine Kujath Thorp) modeling Regardless in Sick of Myself

JC: Borgli’s style reminds me of Haneke’s films and Yorgos’s Dogtooth: measured, exacting, longer continuous takes, subtle rather than handheld jerky camera movements. It has an illusion of objectivity that’s precise yet manipulative. The staged frames tend to have a more insidious effect in a way because it implies a certain degree of “anything can happen in this frame” distance. As for the body horror itself, I loved the way her face increasingly bulges and crumples. At one point, a makeup team dolls her up preposterously in lipstick for a “Regardless” fashion brand photoshoot, alongside a woman with a malformed arm and hand but a pretty face, and she sparks Signe’s envy. As for the “nightmare” in which Signe’s melting face is stuck to a desk, I thought, given the nature of the film, why even stoop to the dream within a dream? Films are already dreams to begin with—make the whole thing a living nightmare that can’t be woken from! And why not go all the way with her facial decomposition to the point where her face falls off entirely (à la The Fly) and she needs an entirely new one… 

EC: That glued flesh nightmare was the only moment I gasped in the film! It was a downer to realize it was just a dream sequence. I actually hated the malformed arm prop in the Regardless fashion shoot because it looked so incredibly absurdly fake. It reminded me of Rachel Dratch’s stint as Angelina Jolie and her brother’s love child with a baby arm stuck out of her head on SNL way back in the era of Angie’s incestual award show stunts (*sigh* Those were the days…).

While it was funny, I wasn’t that impressed by the Regardless shoot scene overall, which also marked the point when I started getting a bit bored by the film. All those long lingering shots on statues! Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is what we’re losing as artists, filmmakers, and other creatives feel compelled to launch political, social, or cultural critiques in every creative endeavor as if they’re perpetually applying for grants. The Regardless shoot is obviously satirizing the kind of inclusivity bent we see brands aiming for now as Signe landed the gig after signing with an “inclusive” modeling agency. But it just seemed a bit too obvious and clunky to land as effective satire. We get it. Victimhood and trauma, as well as trying to look as hideous as humanly possible, are beneficial for attention-seekers, particularly on social media, which is why just about anything counts as trauma now (even poisoning yourself). This reaches its comical conclusion as Signe eventually confesses to her reporter friend who deems her insane and Signe responds, “That’s kind of privileged of you to say.” Yet, I just don’t think the film needed this at all.

To me, Sick of Myself excels as a bizarro folie à deux as Thomas and Signe battle it out to see who can get the most attention—in whatever way possible, like giving a toast at a gallery dinner while your girlfriend goes into fake anaphylactic shock. These two are hilariously exhausting and yet inexhaustible, constantly cooking up new ways to grab eyes and undermine the other. Or figure out how they can use one another for their own narcissistic gain such as the scene in which Thomas begins kissing and showing affection towards a bandaged Signe on the post-hospital bus ride home after he notices a woman looking at him approvingly as if he’s a genuinely caring and loyal partner. This batshit competition seems enough to make that same unhinged attention-grabbing critique without bashing everyone over the head with it.

Thomas (Eirik Sæther) and Signe (Kristine Kujath Thorp) in Sick of Myself

JC: I don’t mind the obvious bashing. It suits Signe’s character as a petulant child with no substance–she’s all facade and tawdry reiterations of Twitter discourse. Even her “normal” friends seem a bit dull. No wonder Signe’s trying to shake things up, though she shows no curiosity about the lives of her friends, either…

EC: Her friends basically exist in the film as she sees them: as bit characters in her starring role. She’s not the only egomaniac who does this though, which is why I wanted to turn the discussion to the art world! I related to Signe’s experience at Thomas’s big gallery opening as she kept getting pushed aside, as well as the dinner when she wasn’t being spoken to by anyone around her, just mumbling to the air about the architect who built the place. I’ve been there! Nobody ever wanted to talk to me at gallery dinners either, particularly after I mentioned I ran a blog. Now, I know what to do! Pretend to have a food allergy! (I’m actually going to a gallery dinner this Thursday because of the catalogue essay I wrote for Adam Umbach’s show at Cavalier Gallery…dare I?) Beyond my own experiences, I think one of the biggest payoffs in the film is the discovery that Thomas himself is a scammer who pinches expensive modern furniture for his art. I loved that little detail almost more than Signe’s drawn-out disfigurement. It makes his obsession with being interviewed by a magazine that much funnier since he was more thief than artist. 

JC: I say get your free meal and booze and be as allergic as you wanna be to your fellow guests. I was amused by the stolen furniture as a conceptual art ploy too, as well as Thomas’s cringe poses with a lounge chair for a mag cover–something that would appear on the cover of Cultured or somewhere like that. The art world presents a constant flow of low-hanging fruit, and while I don’t think any director has eclipsed The Square just yet, I wouldn’t have minded if the movie went on a notch longer to show Thomas making some bonkers art with Signe’s disfigured face (his proposal to her on that front was also a dream right?). Thomas was an underutilized character in some ways because he’s so darn dopey, doling out the “an artist’s life is a lonely life” speech while we are shown a flashback of him and Signe roaming through the street with a stolen piece of furniture. Signe sabotages herself as much as she sabotages Thomas, though it surprised me he doesn’t dump her (or her him) when given so many opportunities, such as when she starts crying after ruining his opening night with her fake anaphylactic display, or when she calls to ask a journalist to have her puff piece interview prioritized upon discovery that her “exclusive” story got bumped off the main page by active shooter coverage (“What fucking nerd shoots his whole family?!”). Like you say, we have to keep the idea of them as “like attracts like” in mind, they are sibling-lovers-business partners in fraud and petty theft. Signe’s character could have leaned into some Marina Abramović “suffer for my art” territory – although the HBO The Artist is Present documentary unwittingly parodies itself enough. Art’s always been an easy target, but it’s always a thrill, albeit a cheap one, when a film like this does something a bit clever on that front.

EC: I also couldn’t watch the film without reflecting on some of my own favorite pathological liars and attention-seekers. Of course, there are many film and TV representations of Munchausen by proxy, both fact and fiction—Mommy Dead and Dearest, its fictional counterpart The Act, Sharp Objects—but less so Munchausen itself, at least that I can recall off the top of my head. For a while, during the montage in which Signe downs pill after pill and nods out in public spaces, the film reminded me of another John Waters pick—Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s Swallow—about a housewife with pica that begins eating thumbtacks! I have yet to see that film but it’s on the list.

Signe (Kristine Kujath Thorp) on her daily regimen

JC: I didn’t like Swallow that much, it was kinda humorless, but go on now that I’ve lowered your expectations. As far as other artful depictions of Munchausen go, Phantom Thread winds up hitting a similar nerve to stay unwell. And oh my lordy – you sent me on a Munchausen by proxy rabbit hole and the Gypsy Rose Blanchard case is mortifying! No surprise that Gypsy turned out the monstrous way she did. She was certainly a victim of abuse, which Signe isn’t, though Signe rationalizes her shitty behavior away by basically saying, “Well, I’m mentally ill so that’s why I’m an asshole and you’re privileged if you don’t have mental illness.” And it’s pretty telling how psychologically damaged she is from the get-go, especially when she starts taunting a dog into attacking her and gets caught in the act by the owner, the beginning of more sadomasochistic tendencies to come. I’m now addicted to Killer Cases on YouTube, so thanks for that…

EC: I LOVE GYPSY ROSE! Her post-matricide Facebook post  “That bitch is dead” is the line that made her an instant hero in my eyes as I was chuckling on the sofa while watching Mommy Dead and Dearest and considering sending her prison love letters. Let’s be honest, mama DeeDee Blanchard asked for it. And if you haven’t yet, please watch The Act, which is an instant camp classic. I constantly want to imitate Patricia Arquette as DeeDee hollering, “GYPSY ROOOOSE!”

And while we’re on the subject of crime heroes, Sick of Myself reminded me of some famous and infamous pathological liars who lied their way into power or society. The most obvious reference here is (yet another) hero George Santos aka Kitara Ravache, but I also want to mention his homicidal gay predecessor Andrew Cunanan. While Signe’s ploy for attention is extreme in the film, it’s not unheard of in reality. I’m slightly fixated on pathological liars. There’s something just so fascinating about that impulse. Pathological lying can be a kind of world-making and, as we see with Signe, self-fashioning!

 Did the film remind you of anything else, cinematic, real, or otherwise?

JC: Yeah, I was also reminded of that poor woman who had her face mauled by Travis the chimpanzee. The film is bound up in these pop culture and daytime TV references—things we don’t typically laugh at, of course, but are voyeuristically fascinated by—and then nudges us toward the very un-PC taboo of laughing at an ugly person. This film feels super derivative and referential. Can I say derivative in a positive sense though? The film also coincided with my listening to an episode of the High Low with EmRata podcast (I know–the shame!) when Julia Fox (Love her! Big fan!) was being interviewed. She said that pretty curvy girl is out – ugly emaciated dirty girl is in and explained how she has transformed herself to encompass unflatteringly edgy looks. She stops at like inducing a gnarly hive breakout or severe burn wounds and looks like a magnificent urban ghost-corpse in these orchestrated street shoots, though admittedly the real horror is when Fox talks about her post-pregnancy torn-up infected vagina. They could have done a whole episode on that alone. I was captivated by the details. 

To circle back to your point about pathologies though, Signe is, of course, a textbook narcissist: the absent father, the inability to establish boundaries, codependency, excessive need for admiration, addiction to social media, compulsive lying, hypochondria, vanity, pettiness, grandiosity, projection—all within the context of an all-permissive cultural attitude. With the resurgent interest in Christopher Lasch, “narcissist” has become a catchall generalization for a great deal of people. A growing number of podcasts on the topic are a short Google away, such as “Navigating Narcissism,” “Surviving Narcissism,” and so on, which is unhelpful pseudo-psychology to me. I do remember looking at bullet-point traits of a narcissist and thinking, “Hmm some of these traits would apply to me” though almost anybody would tick a few these days. We all to some extent wanna feel “special” and nobody is above the culture, especially not cultural critics! 

EC: As you know, I have a bit of therapy world insight and apparently, therapy TikTok is filled with viral posts about narcissists. It’s the hot new thing! Actually, I worked with Matt Lundquist on a response to this social media-fueled narcissism-a-go-go for Tribeca Therapy’s blog, which seems relevant here.  I’ve also read the bullet point traits of narcissists and I’ve always found the personality disorder traits to be a bit like astrology or MBTI, you can find a way to relate to at least a little bit of almost all of them! (Though I’m much more on the schizoid/avoidant please-god-leave-me-alone end of the personality disorder spectrum than narcissist). 

JC: I’m avoidant too, I tick all the boxes ha. And oh my, this Tribeca Therapy hyperlink is useful. For the benefit of the readers (assuming at least one gets this far…), I’m quoting Matt Lundquist in summary back at you:

“The irony of warning people about manipulative narcissists, as many therapists are doing over social media, is that it reinforces this problematic split: You (the subject) are all good and he (the other, who is almost always a he) is all bad. And I (the therapist/coach/influencer) am, by extension, all good. This sorts people into two camps—good and bad—with the idea that there’s a manipulative narcissist lurking, cleverly obscured, and waiting to pounce. 

Further, this type of warning about narcissistic boogiemen is quite a clever narcissistic sleight of hand. The therapist is tickling their own narcissism by appealing to their patient’s narcissism: I, your amazing therapist, will make you feel good by helping you locate all of your bad feelings and qualities on someone else (aka the “narcissist”) so that you can remain in your fantasy of being pure while I confirm my own fantasy of purity…. Most experiences aren’t purely victimization at the hands of an all-bad other.” 

There are, of course, legitimate victims, but for people living quite ordinary lives exposed to relatively minimal dangers, many of our experiences of society chalk up to stories we tell ourselves for purposes of self-preservation. Some of us (myself included) need to be told outright, like the truth-telling phantom doctor during Signe’s MRI scan: “You have a bad personality.” (A possibly unnecessary side note: that doctor was played by real-life doctor Anders Danielsen Lie, the same guy from Joachim Trier’s Worst Person in the World and Oslo). The AA-style group therapy confronts Signe in other ways as her fellow in-patients reprimand her for being lucky that her debilitations are so visible, whereas their inadequacies are hidden. Then there’s the New Age guru-philosopher guy mediating the group, the one who sniffs at some fresh vomit, who goes on to offer Signe some common sense advice: take off the mask, get some fresh air, which inevitably unleashes her even more extreme vanity. Subsequently, she starts to experience other side effects brought on by the black market meds, like those pesky leg tremors, so you get the sense of unintended consequences catching up to her. This happened with the Gypsy Rose case also: while she was born perfectly healthy and didn’t have any of the maladies her mother insisted to medical professionals that she had, she was confined to a wheelchair and pumped with so many medications with such regularity that she started to embody the symptoms she would have had if she were diagnosed.

EC: Along with the tremors, you do get the feeling that when Signe’s hair starts falling out, she’s no longer as thrilled with her transformation as before. So you’re right to point out there is a sense of consequences catching up to her. Actually, both Thomas and Signe see consequences as he ends up in jail after trying to heist more furniture. The final shots of the film are given to Signe’s woo-woo wellness group with her fellow sufferers of illnesses writhing on the ground and chanting, “I love to live!” I don’t know. This didn’t quite land for me and felt like a bit of a letdown. I’m not sure what we were supposed to take away from this honestly. What did you think of the end of the film?

JC: Thomas and Signe are punished on one level but they’re not redeemed, unless you count a collective frolic in the woods as transcendent. Signe might finally be genuinely feeling something by repeating a dull New Age affirmation, but it’s hard to believe she would ever be concerned with anything outside her silly bubble of self-love. 

EC: No, I didn’t believe it one bit. I was waiting for her to do something else to suck up all the air in the room and was disappointed she didn’t! 

JC: So perhaps if there’s a lesson to be learned from this discussion, it’s not to seek therapeutic advice from TikTok and to reserve any TikTok usage for Julia Fox alone, before getting the hell off of there.

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