Sick of Myself
This pitch-black Norwegian comedy has insightful and important things to say about our attention-craving society, where everything is filtered through our narcissistic need to tell our story.
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“Sick of Myself” is a little Norwegian film that has big things to say. It made me think of various little bites of pop culture commentary I’ve experienced centered on what I’d call our attention economy. It distills them into a single cinematic thesis that is brutally hilarious, and terribly depressing.
Success these days depends most on not having the best ideas, but drawing the biggest audience to whatever we’re doing — even if that has no cultural value or is harmful. It’s reflected in our art, our entertainment, our politics, our social media, how we talk to (or don’t) each other.
Written and directed by Kristoffer Borgli, his second feature after a lengthy apprenticeship in short films, it’s about a young woman, Signe (Kristine Kujath Thorp), who intentionally makes herself seriously ill in order to gain attention.
At first this is driven by a need to compete with her boyfriend, a shallow artist experiencing a breakout. But soon she becomes swept up in an unending parade of fantasies and delusions in which she becomes famous for her seemingly mysterious ailment, which has resulted in her becoming dramatically disfigured.
As her aspirations start to come true, it only reinforces her self-destructive behavior, until she finds herself too far down a very dark path to turn back.
I was reminded of Munchausen's syndrome, something that was a topic in the news some years ago, mostly having to do with parents fabricating terrible and rare diseases in their children in order to make them media sensations. Soon it became a self-centered phenomenon.
The ripple effects of this malaise continue, such as an entire multi-billion-dollar gluten-free food industry that mostly caters to people who do not actually have gluten sensitivity.
There’s been also much talk about “social contagion” with ramifications for various demographics. But to my mind what it really boils down to is this: everybody wants to be “special” in some way — multiple ways, preferably. Having behaviors and aspects that fall squarely within the mainstream is now seen as boring and even a burden.
Comedian Mae Martin, in their new Netflix special “SAP,” has a hilarious and insightful bit about how each us is constantly engaged in storytelling about ourselves, represented as snow globes reflecting parts of our personality that we have an insatiable need to share with others. We say we’re interested in other people’s snow globes, but really are just waiting for an opening to show off our own.
Basically, narcissism and neuroticism are the new norm.
In Signe’s case, she’s a pretty unremarkable woman in her 20s who works in a bakery. Her boyfriend, Thomas (Eirik Sæther), has established a following for his art, centered around stealing things from public places and then altering their shape and context. It’s pretty bourgeois rebellious stuff, but he’s about to have a show at a big-name gallery, is being interviewed/photographed for a magazine cover, etc.
Their relationship is pleasant enough but quietly competitive, even transactional. During a meal with friends — at which they show off a $2,300 bottle of wine they pilfered from a fancy restaurant — Signe feels compelled to point out that Thomas’ show is not at the main gallery, but a smaller temporary space.
Later, at a big dinner for Thomas’ opening, the waiter asks if anyone has any food allergies, and Signe pretends to have one for nuts — just so some of the group’s attention will flow to her instead. We soon see how committed she is to carrying on the charade.
Adoring in the spectacle, and the fact she stole some of Thomas’ limelight, Signe becomes intrigued by an illegal Russian drug called Lidexol that’s been causing strange, hideous skin conditions. She obtains a bunch of the bright yellow pills and begins abusing them in order to induce the condition in herself.
Winding up in the hospital with a mask covering her entire head, Signe keeps careful track of which friends visit or send flowers, and who doesn’t. She’s disappointed in the number of condolence text messages she receives. More action is required.
On their way home from the hospital, there’s a great little moment on the bus. Another woman about Signe’s age sees her sitting with Thomas and is mesmerized by her appearance. Signe doesn’t notice this attention but Thomas does, and he immediately begins affectionately comforting her — playing the role of the adoring boyfriend, despite her disfigurement. The other woman is appropriately touched by his devotion, and he feels rewarded.
Signe arranges through a journalist friend, Marte (Fanny Vaager), to have cover story about her mysterious disease published in VG News magazine. She even arranges the photo shoot to mirror the one done earlier in their apartment for Thomas. He begins to try to passively undermine her success, as she did his.
You might think this a completely demented transformation, but for Signe it’s a dream come true. She used to be pretty, yes, but was also invisible. Now she looks like Frankenstein’s bride, and people stop to stare.
Back in the day as a psychology major, I was fascinated by Maslow’s theory of self-actualization and hierarchy of needs. This is a bit esoteric, I know, but the gist of it was that people tend to have an aspirational concept of themselves and are always performing to present this version to others. In this sense, ‘fake it till you make it’ is not an act of hiding ourselves but a compulsive need to be seen the way we want.
This stuff has been going on for a long time, but our current attention economy is a digital superhighway shortcut to those rewards. The problem is we lose sense of the person we wanted to emulate and get hooked on the buzz of being “notable.”
Look at the blue checkmarks on Twitter. It’s a worthless bit of phantom currency that those who had it claimed to disdain, but boy did they howl when the unearned appellation was taken away.
For a long time (and still occasionally), my youngest son had a thing where he liked to pretend to be angry, as a joke. It got him laughs when he was little, so he kept doing it. After awhile it got old and we tried to discourage it. He’d keep doing it, get annoyed it wasn’t getting the reaction it did before, which led to him actually getting mad. So the act of pretending led him to double down on negative emotions.
Signe’s initial temptation toward seeking attention is prompted by a horrific episode of violence at her work in which she morphed from witness to participant. In that moment, she realized that people are transfixed by the sight of blood, even if it isn’t your own. From there, is it really such a big leap to a few self-inflicted slices if it keeps everyone’s eyeballs on you?
“Sick of Myself” is a work of snarky satire, but also of bracing truth. It’s the rare sort of movie that makes us laugh, and then scares us about why we’re laughing.