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The Tragically Hip

The Tragically Hip

Norwegian import 'Sick of Myself' takes on professional victimhood in ways only the American indie once could.

The third in a series on exploiting tragedy in the movies. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

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“I guess I’m like a nomad artistically,” filmmaker Kristoffer Borgli tells an interviewer on a scenic walk through the hills of Los Angeles. “But I’m interested in the extremes of both sides. The American culture and the Norwegian culture.” A shot rings out as Borgli is midsentence before blowing a hole through his lower abdomen. The promising young filmmaker was just trying to promote his second feature film, Sick of Myself, before he became yet another victim of America’s gun violence epidemic. As the color drains out of his face and the LAPD seems radically untroubled, Borgli doesn’t merely keep talking; he begins to direct the scene, starting with a close-up of his oozing wound and ending with yet more pontificating on his most recent project.  

No, Borgli wasn’t really shot, but that doesn’t make the scene any less real. The man is on a press blitz and fresh from the buzz he garnered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Can anyone really say this abrasive foray into performance art is any less constructed than Jennifer Lawrence’s banter with Jimmy Fallon or any presidential primary candidate’s remarks at a chili cook off on the campaign trail? 

Borgli’s video, “Filmmaker gets shot during interview,” is about exploitation: by a filmmaker using grants from his native country to make it in Hollywood; by a public addicted to the YouTubed tragedy porn its title alludes to; by the media through its willfully uninterrogated relationship to gun violence. His promotional materials contain more self-awareness and substance than most American films playing at arthouses and festivals at any given moment. That’s likely why he turned to his native Norway to make Sick of Myself. A film this scathing about the people who run our culture industry and those of us who blindly partake in it never had a chance in the States. 

When Sick of Myself opened at the Belcourt last month, its five-day run seemed almost cursory. In a space that often serves as an incubator for little-known indies to grow their audience through word of mouth, it came and went during Mother’s Day weekend despite being the last film anyone would want to see with the woman who gave them life. In truth, Nashville was probably not ready for it at this particular moment in time. The politics surrounding Covenant were reaching a fever pitch, one side squealing about releasing a manifesto that would either lead to more endless press coverage or allegations of suppression if it said the wrong thing. Those with tenuous ties to the school or with an unexpected microphone thanks to their proximity tried to pivot into amateur policy pundits, hoping their associations would, in many cases, cloud their obvious biases and previously established beefs with the bigwigs of state politics. 

It might not have been the right time to absorb a gutting black comedy that follows a boho yuppie couple whose hunger for fame and drive to outdo each other in the quest for attention define their relationship. But no movie better captured the petri dish of weaponized victimization the city was going through at the time. Signe (Kristine Kujath Thorp) works as a barista–and is not a particularly good one. Her boyfriend, Thomas (Eirik Sæther), is an artist whose aesthetic consists of shoplifting and reappropriating furniture from trendy boutiques. When Thomas’ latest show garners the bare minimum of press attention, Signe’s jealousy upends her entire identity.

With even less discernible talent than Thomas, she mainlines a Russian anti-anxiety drug under recall for breaking its users out in permanent pus-filled rashes and conjures a career out of her manufactured illness. When national press attention and a contract as a nontraditional model lead Signe to attain the celebrity about which she’s long dreamed, Thomas ups the ante on his own antics, bringing the couple to the brink of annihilation in their quests for fame. 

While Sick of Myself’s melding of body horror and dry comedy to target narcissism in the age of social media may seem like a hot take more suited to TikTok, Borgli is too savvy to let such statements merely serve as the flashpoint for his nuanced social diagnosis. In his short film work, Borgli has long taken self-deprecating potshots at his own profundity, whether in “filmmaker gets shot” or “The Loser,” his meta cringe interview with Reality Hunger writer David Shields and American Psycho creator Bret Easton Ellis. However, Sick of Myself is one of the few films to focus solely on how the quest for fame manifests in those who not only lack talent but also eschew any passion for a craft or desire to improve it. 

In contrast to Norway’s lauded 2022 Oscar entry The Worst Person in the World, the millennials at the center of Sick of Myself seem wildly disinterested in being renowned for anything in particular so long as they are well known. As the film opens, Signe and Thomas share a four-figure bottle of champagne in their best formal attire as they perform the role of the urbane elite. But, when the server leaves their table, they dine and dash with gusto. This is not another story of the starving artist in the mode of Rent or even Titanic (after all, Jack did a fine enough job sketching Rose to at least earn a spot on the wall of a unionized coffee shop); it’s the story of the moral bankruptcy that occurs when posturing and theft, intellectual or otherwise, become so notable that its purveyors earn spots on fashion magazine covers. That a millennial would attain the attention of the art world by suspending a glorified IKEA chair upside down that he stole from the store adjacent to the gallery may be the most succinct takedown of the generation’s aesthetics ever put to film.

Yet, for those like Signe who lack the charisma Thomas has in spades to pull off his charade, things get desperate. After a dog serendipitously attacking a customer outside her coffee shop results in her first tragedy high, she embarks on the initial stages of her self-martyrdom campaign. Her involvement in the attack resulted in some blood spatter on her uniform. But that’s not enough. Smearing the victim’s blood on her face, Signe wanders home in all her gory glory. She’s in her own brand of warpaint now that serves as a potent symbol of behaviors from social media oversharing to influencer branding that ultimately leads to Borgli’s extreme yet apt definition of self-sacrifice in pursuit of a dream. 

As Signe navigates the world of her newfound fame, Borgli fully realizes his opportunity to obliterate the culture industry’s vapid gestures to diversity. In the film’s central extended gag, Signe signs with a modeling agency focusing on alternative beauty after she browbeats her journalist friend into writing a feature article on her. Her representation claims to speak for those the world marginalizes because they don’t meet society’s conventions. It practices what it preaches as evidenced by the blind assistant who helps run Signe’s first major shoot for the fashion brand. As expected, the assistant cannot do her job, relying on the constant “hot and cold” clues from her superiors. Like Signe, she’s a valuable object of pity. But she’s also more than a punchline because, in the end, she just wants a purpose.

As it comes to a close, Sick of Myself outwardly conforms to the beats of any given movie built around deception. Signe’s greatest fear is being found out and, as expected, the whole ruse comes crashing down. But in Borgli’s world, much like our own, this doesn’t really mean much. Deceit sells–a complementary good to consumable tragedy whether in the form of the nut allergy Signe fakes to upstage Thomas’s dinner to celebrate a prestigious gallery show or the book deal she secures through willful exploitation. She may end the film achieving all her dreams. But that she’s learned no lessons makes Signe’s victory even sweeter. She’s a tragedy-fuelled nomad. And, unlike Borgli, she’s wildly uninterested in being anything more. 

Sick of Myself is now available for digital rental.