There’s a science to why talented people will stop themselves from publishing anything—they have more self-doubt—while seeming idiots are very prolific.
Kristoffer Borgli’s 2022 Cannes Un Certain Regard knockout Sick of Myself marks the Norwegian filmmaker’s follow-up feature to his 2017 hybrid mockumentary DRIB, the inside story of an energy drink marketing ploy gone awry. A pointed look at society’s volatile fixation on chasing viral fame in the digital age, Borgli skewers the cult of performative victimhood in particular, which runs parallel to any progressive social awakening, and muddies the waters to the extent that the language of tolerance is weaponized and true gains are clouded by apologies and equivocations.
Sick of Myself begins with a shared focus on Signe (Kristine Kujath Thorp) and Thomas (Eirik Sæther). They are pretty, privileged, equally grating, and living out a poisonous relationship built upon the absurd lengths to which they will go to be the more interesting party. Signe’s already alarming neediness goes into overdrive when Thomas finds modest success as an artist, with questionable works that he cobbles together via furniture lifted from public spaces. Signe resolves to level the playing field, and initially, her actions are relatively minor and fleeting in their effect, like her false claim of having a severe nut allergy for attention. But it’s when she comes to a woman’s aid in a dog mauling incident, and the attention she receives from the police, passersby and subsequently the media, that a seed is planted. Now she’s given over to what she has been seeking all along: rapt attention. Upping the ante even further, she willingly consumes a dodgy mood-altering drug from Russia, which has been linked to a mysterious flesh-eating skin disease by the handful. Now with a mutilated face—but at long last—she fully harnesses the victim status she so desired, and one that propels her to her own modest level of fame. Her sickness spiraling, Signe is left to choose between her delusions and the admission of guilt that could take it all away.
Anthem sat down with Borgli to discuss Sick of Myself and his next film, Dream Scenario, for A24.
Sick of Myself opens in select theaters on April 14 via Utopia.
It only dawned on me later on that you’re the same guy who made the Syndromes music video, or short film, over a decade ago. So for a long time, I hadn’t known it, but that was my entry into your work. I was just obsessed with The Golden Filter, and living in New York City, I would go to all of their live shows. We even ended up doing a magazine photo shoot together. How did you cross paths with Penelope [Trappes] and Stephen [Hindman]?
Wow, that was so long ago… [laughs] We probably never even met in real life. I think it was purely email and phone calls or whatever it was. They were very open-minded in terms of what this short film was gonna be. How old was I even? I was probably like 24 or 25, and probably not very cohesive or clear in what I even wanted out of the short film. I think they ended up helping to edit it because I was just so unsure about what it was gonna be. They really helped shape the thing. But that’s funny, I haven’t thought about that in a while.
At the time, as a young filmmaker, what attracted you to that particular project?
I was probably just trying to figure out my voice and my tone, and experimenting with all sorts of things in whatever way the medium would allow me to experiment. That medium being short films or music videos, I was just looking for opportunities to get a little bit of a budget so that I could hire a DP and experiment with something cinematic. In my head, I always wanted to end up in feature films—that was always my goal. I think I tried to use any opportunity to create some sort of narrative art, even if that was supposed to be, I guess, a music video that turned into a short film. That was the symptom of everything I did back then: pitching on a music video, but behind the scenes, actually working on a short film. I was just looking at those things as something to cut my teeth on and gaining experience and experimenting.
You’ve since made the leap into features, and you’re making big strides with Sick of Myself. What did you set out to investigate? For one thing, narcissism is an inescapable subject.
One of the things that made me want to investigate it—and maybe not just purely narcissism, but this competitiveness around career—was a feeling I located within myself, and also in trying to have honest discussions about it with people around me. How are we feeling? Because there seemed to be a sense that, when a friend succeeds, a little piece of me dies. There’s something about seeing people you like and love succeeding and getting ahead that’s very painful.
That’s so honest, and I think it’s more resonant than most of us are willing to admit.
And, you know, I tried not to act on it. I know that it was negative and petty and I tried to have a healthier sense of not listening to those feelings. It did make me want to explore it in a narrative sense, looking at characters who didn’t have that filter and felt equally uneasy about people around them getting ahead where you’re being left behind. What kind of extremes are you willing to go in order to get ahead or to get validation or to get that type of attention? The discussions I was having about the things I was feeling wasn’t niche. It represented something in the culture. Every time I had that discussion, people weighed in and had their opinions about it. It was clearly something that was in the culture and it felt like a big topic to tackle.
It just so happens that Signe is one of those people who will take it very far. She is lusting for the kind of attention that is ultimately self-harming and self-annihilating. How do you define her at the apex of her narcissistic tendencies? Is she a psychopath? Also, what are we to make of Thomas, both individually and in relation to Signe? He lacks a sensitivity chip as well.
Yeah, it suddenly made sense as a film when there are the two of them. If you have a headache alone, you manage that headache and it’s not really a big problem and nobody else knows about it. If you’re in a relationship, that headache is the biggest headache you’ve ever had and it becomes something that requires all of your focus and attention. Also, your partner needs to really sympathize and acknowledge what pain you’re going through. There’s something about a relationship that exaggerates any type of feeling, whether it’s jealousy, impatience, worry. I think her desire to be valued and to have some sort of attention is amplified by being in a relationship, for one, but also from being in a relationship with a person who refuses to give into any of that. I think the dynamic between them is one where they are sort of starving each other from that attention, refusing to give each other pats on the back. They keep throwing each other under the bus in order to be seen as the main character in the relationship. They’re constantly one-upping each other to sit at the throne. I thought that was a comedic dynamic that could drive a movie.
How do you feel about narcissism and competitiveness in relation to the field you’re working in? Do filmmakers have a better shot at making it if they have inflated egos?
It’s pretty obvious that, whether it’s hubris or not even a rational sense of it, confidence and believing in yourself can get you really far. It might be a little bit necessary to even attempt at doing something publicly. In the extremes, you can become the President of the United States. [laughs] It seems like an unnecessary element, but still an element that, fairly or unfairly, can get you ahead. It’s like the Dunning–Kruger effect, a graph that tries to map your confidence level versus the actual talent that you have and relating that to productivity. There’s something about having a lot of confidence and not actual talent that still makes you productive because you’re naively thinking that you’re really talented. And the more talent you get, the more you grow this self-awareness that, “Oh, actually, I’m not the greatest of all time.” There’s a science to why talented people will stop themselves from publishing anything—they have more self-doubt—while seeming idiots are very prolific. [laughs] So I think it’s that naive belief in yourself that makes you confident in releasing anything into the world and, as a result, can make you more successful.
Eirik [Sæther] plays the hack so well in the film, and it surprised me to learn that he’s an artist. This role must’ve been so fun for him to play because I understand that he’s not at all like Thomas in real life. So what we get is an artist playing an artist. You also have Anders [Danielsen Lie], who doubles as a doctor in real life, playing a doctor. Then we have you, a director playing a commercial director in the film. That had to be intentional, surely?
Well, I think there is something about the authenticity in knowing the culture you’re representing really well. Of course, Anders being a doctor in real life, that’s a very easy character for him to play. He was even commenting on the wardrobe that we had: “I usually have my pen here, and I don’t wear these kinds of shoes.” That level of detail and intimacy with the culture you’re representing of course translates to authenticity. There was something about the contemporary artist that felt inauthentic in the auditions when I tried out some actors. But then I had Eirik, who’s an old friend of mine and had sort of acted as a visual placeholder in the script. When I tried him in the part, it suddenly felt more authentic and real. Then I also thought, “I know how to play a douchebag director. Of course I know how to do that.” [laughs] So it’s not necessary for an actor to also double in the occupation of the character they’re playing, but it can help.
I think you chose the perfect location in which to stage Signe’s big moment. Having seen the Vigeland Park and the adjoining museum in Oslo for myself last year, I was reminded of “Man Attacked by Babies,” for instance, a sculpture that really echoes the film’s specific tone—threading the needle between absurd comedy and something much more sinister.
One thing is that it just happens to be one of the most impressive visual landscapes we have in Oslo. That museum is so impressive and breathtaking. But it also depicts an older ideal for body types. It is all of these grand statues of impressive and sculpted bodies. It was something about the idea of the fashion shoot being a breaking down of the old beauty standards and making way for new, marginalized, alternative faces and body types. Juxtaposing the old ideals versus the new ideals, I thought it would make sense for this brand to go there to do this kind of overstated, perhaps tacky, kind of activism: rebelling against the past makes way for the new progressive truth. So it worked for satire, but also intuitively to meet my own aesthetic taste because I love that museum. Another interesting element is that [Gustav] Vigeland had people who taught under him, who went from working in Norway on this museum and in the park to then ending up in Hollywood making prosthetics. So the first type of visual prosthetic sculpting actually has a connection to Vigeland. Having prosthetics influencing my filmic language here with the body horror and all of that, I came full circle back into the Vigeland Museum. Having my American prosthetics designer make his own version of a body sculpt inside of that museum meant that there was a sculpt history anachronism and that just felt interesting to capture on film.
How did you first come to discover body horror?
I worked at a video store in my teenage years. I got pretty quickly into people who had a very strong voice and a strong tone. I was really into David Lynch. I discovered David Cronenberg. I loved a lot of the aesthetic elements of body horror, but specifically the prosthetics and the sculpts—not so much the tone of a body horror universe. I was always interested in the idea of taking body horror and making it appear inside of a normal movie. That was one of the main inspirations for this: having the uncanniness of body horror exist in a normal setting.
And this video store you worked at in Norway was called American Way of Video?
Yeah, exactly. [laughs] So ironic.
Next up, you have Dream Scenario. It certainly seems like a dream scenario: starring Nicolas Cage, for A24, with Ari Aster producing. The synopsis reads, “a professor gains international fame after showing up in every single person’s dreams.” I don’t know how much the film skews horror, if at all, but were you by any chance inspired by the This Man urban legend?
One of the touchstones for my idea was actually Freddy Krueger. What if we were to take him seriously today? What would that look like in our current culture? There were so many reference points and inspirations. For now, I don’t want to get in the way of how A24 wants to market the movie so I’m gonna hold off on talking about it too much. I look forward to talking about it more when it’s released. We’re still editing the movie right now so, you know, it’s not even done.