Usually when we think of narcissists in cinema, we picture someone obsessed with always improving their physical appearance, such as Patrick Bateman staring at himself as he goes through his psychotic skincare routine, or the Plastics pointing out their perceived physical flaws in the full-length mirror. In the black comedy Sick of Myself, which played at the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, Norwegian writer/director Kristoffer Borgli is more interested in exploring an even uglier side of narcissism: Someone who makes oneself sicker to garner attention and sympathy.
Signe (Kristine Kujath Thorp) is addicted to drawing attention to herself in any way that she can: She lies about having a life threatening nut allergy so that more people will pay attention to her at a large dinner party, she talks nonstop about the time she helped a woman who was severely bitten by a dog, she constantly lies about silly, small things, like having less than ten toes. So when she reads an article on Twitter about a Russian drug called Lidexol that causes a mysterious skin disease, she doesn’t see the tragedy of other people’s pain. She sees opportunity. She buys Lidexol in bulk from her drug dealer Stian (Steinar Klouman Hallert) and starts taking it in large amounts in order to make herself sick. First it makes her overly sleepy, but soon a rash appears on her arm and neck; she pretends not to notice it so that her kleptomaniac artist boyfriend Thomas (Eirik Saether) will point it out, proving his concern for her well-being. He insists that she go to the doctor, and she does, but she won’t let the doctors examine her, because that would expose her greatest fear: Being found out.
At first, Signe gets what she wants. As her illness worsens, her face becomes more and more disfigured, and she soon has to wear a mask that covers her entire face, Eyes Without a Face style. Some of her friends visit her in the hospital, and her boyfriend gives her more attention. But like any addiction, it’s not enough for her unending attention appetite; not enough of her friends visit, her boyfriend’s attentions shift back to his career soon enough. Her posts don’t get enough likes. An article is published about Signe and her “mysterious illness,” but the article is pushed down on the news site due to breaking news of a man murdering his family in cold blood. She pleads with her journalist friend to push her article back up to the top of the site, to no avail. In an attention economy that moves on at the speed of light, there are diminishing returns.
Of course, the apex of any clinical attention seeker’s dream is death, an imagined event so drenched in pleasure for Signe that it becomes her deepest sexual fantasy. The only time Signe and Thomas connect in the film is also the funniest scene in the film, when Thomas describes Signe’s funeral to her as they fuck in a voice most normal people would reserve for dirty talk; instead of telling her how sexy she is or how badly he wants her, he tells her in detail about the long lines to get into her funeral, about how her father wants desperately to get in but he isn’t on the guest list. This brings her to climax.
We can psychoanalyze Signe all we want—her father was absent when she was growing up, her mom seems a little unwell, she has to compete for attention in her deeply poisonous, completely enabling relationship with Thomas, who is hilariously and equally as narcissistic as Signe—but that would make for a much less engaging film. We can blame the modern art scene which rewards narcissistic behavior, or social media, or her friends who choose not to speak up against her incessantly unhinged behaviors because of her illness. No amount of therapy could help Signe mitigate her self-destructive tendencies because she has no interest in getting better—her entire identity is dependent on being the victim of any situation.
“No one asks to be a psychopath,” Signe laments to her friend, once the jig is inevitably up. Borgli isn’t interested so much in Signe’s redemption as he is in pushing to her limits in order to highlight our propensity to use our misfortunes to manipulate others by extension. How far will she go in her shameless quest for attention? For how long will Signe be in control of her addiction, keep her dark secret hidden away?
Although the journalist’s article doesn’t initially garner as much attention as Signe would have liked, it catches the attention of a modeling agency that promotes (or exploits, depending on your perspective) disabled models. Albeit there are only two models at the agency, and they are both white, conventionally attractive and thin. As expected, Signe is thrilled; modeling is a natural career choice for someone as obsessed with her own image as Signe. Who gains when disabled models are used to sell designer clothes? No one in the modeling industry genuinely cares about Signe—she is made to sign a document saying that the agency cannot be held responsible for her health. Signe is so blinded by the light of her “success” that she isn’t able to see that she is being used.
Sick of Myself reminds us to question the ulterior motive and points out the inherent narcissistic intent behind the urge to “tell your story,” both within ourselves and in others. When Signe imagines writing her book about her illness, she imagines writing a (wildly successful) book that conceals her narcissism rather than revealing it. When you “tell your story,” what is it that you are looking for from your audience? Sympathy? Praise? Validation? Who can we trust in a world where using your sob stories for personal gain is consistently rewarded, financially and otherwise? Much ink has already been spilled over what constitutes an “unlikeable protagonist,” especially female ones, so I’ll save you the grief. Signe is obviously unlikeable, but that’s what makes her the perfect vehicle for exaggerating the small parts of our brains that are obsessed with ourselves, that long for the gratification of a fawning public. Since watching Signe make the most nutty decision possible is hilarious and the film’s tone isn’t too self-serious, Sick of Myself works.
Director: Kristoffer Borgli
Writer: Kristoffer Borgli
Starring: Kristine Kujath Thorp, Eirik Saether, Steinar Klouman Hallert
Release Date: September 9, 2022 (Norway)
Brooklyn-based film writer Katarina Docalovich was raised in an independent video store and never really left. Her passions include sipping lime seltzer, trying on perfume and spending hours theorizing about Survivor. You can find her scattered thoughts as well as her writing on Twitter.