Director – Kristoffer Borgli – 2022 – Norway – Cert. 15 – 95m
Fed up with the attention her successful artist partner is getting, a woman deliberately consumes dangerous prescription drugs to make herself the centre of attention– out in UK cinemas on Friday, April 21st
Young Oslo couple Thomas (Eirik Sæther) and Signe (Kristine Kujath Thorp from Ninjababy, Ingvild Sve Flikke, 2021; The Burning Sea, John Andreas Andersen, 2022) have an unhealthy relationship. He is a compulsive thief, stealing luxury items such as expensive wine and designer furniture from restaurants and showrooms, respectively. She is a compulsive liar and attention seeker. They somehow co-exist in a state of unstable equilibrium. They are on a collision course because he has a potential celebrity career while she does not. He is an artist having his first show at a major gallery, while she works at an ordinary coffee shop.
At a celebratory gathering with friends, she is constantly belittling him, constantly talking down his achievement through judicious use of fact coupled with any fiction she might care to invent. At a restaurant meal with his gallery owner and assorted invited guests, she invents an allergy, ‘absent-mindedly consumes a small amount of Thomas’ food and suffers an allergy attack, immediately becoming the focus of attention on what should be his evening rather than hers.
She’s at her work when a woman staggers in, bleeding from the neck after being bitten by a dog and is the sole person who goes to her aid (although she tells others in no uncertain terms to “keep back” when they try to help. As a result, the paramedic who interviews her after lavishes praise on her and she briefly becomes the focus of media attention. Her fifteen seconds of fame. She loves it.
Internet-surfing leads her to research drugs with unfortunate side-effects, she stumbles upon Russian pharmaceutical Lidexol, immediately closing her laptop when Thomas takes an interest, refusing to tell him what she has been viewing, which he assumes to be some sort of porn, and in the ensuing argument, dropping the laptop out of the window. She visits her dealer friend Stian (Steinar Klouman Hallert from Thelma, 2017) and has him buy all the Lidexol she can find on the web. Then she starts taking it on a regular basis.
Lidexol causes her skin disorder and facial disfigurement, which baffles the doctors. It also turns her into a media celebrity and leads to a modelling career with Lisa (Andrea Bræin Hovig) who runs an ‘inclusive’ modelling agency. Then she writes an autobiography about her experiences called Sick Of Myself. We see her with Thomas, an adept at protecting her from the media circus. If the film is an accurate representation of what it takes to achieve media celebrity, we’re in trouble.
The characters of both partners make for compulsive viewing within a film. Thomas can’t resist taking items of furniture from store displays and later incorporating them into his artworks, almost as if he were crying out to be caught. Yet, when it looks as if he might be apprehended in the act of stealing, he has a powerful fight or flight response and is a fast enough runner to evade most pursuers. Despite attempting to become a celebrity, he seems to have not the slightest inkling that his criminal behaviour might at some point jeopardise his reputation and career.
With no real prospects of career advancement, Signe, by contrast, has nothing to lose. Not until the final reel does she tell her journalist friend and confidante Marta (Fanny Vaager) that she wilfully took Lidexol to make herself ill. To avoid people looking for Stian and asking him questions, she tells people he died (he later turns up with a similar condition to hers, having not only taken the medicine himself, but also given it to his ailing mother, which may well have killed her).
At Lisa’s agency, the self-obsessed Signe fails to look out for a blind employee called Nora. (The politically correct Lisa doesn’t come off too well in this regard either.) Worse, on a fashion shoot where Signe arrived late and there may not be enough time to use her, she locks non-disabled model Frida (Sophia Leeber) in the lavatory, incarcerating her for the last bit of the shoot so they have to use Signe instead.
Both Thomas and Signe’s separate behaviours are consistently jaw-dropping (although she has far more screen time, so we see more of her behaviour than of his. While what we see of his art looks like it might be a confidence trick, her career as a model seems pure manipulation of others with no regard whatsoever for anyone but herself. (Perhaps the same would be equally true of our perception of him were he allotted more screen time.)
Sæther, a painter, sculptor and third area artist in real life, convinces both as an artist and as a compulsive thief. Thorp is extraordinary as the attention seeker and compulsive liar, acting through designer Izzy Galindo’s extremely subtle prosthetics work which would make David Cronenberg proud. Each further visual manifestation of her condition is a revelation, sometime with sudden bleeding or other surprises, yet director Borgli orchestrates it all so skilfully that it never quite lurches into horror or sci-fi territory, which in this instance renders it al the more unsettling.
Actually, the film has a lot in common with Cronenberg’s work than you might think before seeing it: as a study of psychopathology within the context of everyday life, it’s exactly the sort of project he would find himself drawn towards even if it lacks the outward horror / sci-fi trappings with which he’s commonly associated (but think: Maps To The Stars). Although, mention the term ‘body horror’ and (while horror purists might not find it exactly to their liking) it fits this film. And when Signe’s face is covered in hospital, it recalls Edith Scob in gothic horror Eyes Without A Face (Georges Franju, 1958).
In short, an engrossing and compelling study of shocking, compulsive behaviour brilliantly performed and executed. Borgli claims in the press handouts that fiction is a place where you can have characters disregard moral boundaries to which most of us adhere in our lives to explore what the consequences would be without the accompanying consequences which would ensue in real life, and watching the film, it’s hard to disagree.
Sick Of Myself is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, April 21st.