The title of last year’s lively, likeable hit The Worst Person in the World referred to the luminous protagonist and her self-deprecating opinion of herself. Now that film’s producers have come up with a movie that could recycle the earlier title and mean it. If Signe (Kristine Kujath Thorp) in Sick of Myself is not the worst person in the world, she and her artist boyfriend Thomas (Eirik Sæther) must surely be the joint Norwegian champions.
While Thomas is lauded on the Oslo art scene, Signe works in a coffee shop and boasts that everyone tells her she should have her own podcast. It is at work one day that she is forced, possibly for the first time, into a selfless act when a woman who has been mauled by a dog stumbles onto the premises. Signe cradles the victim; the police congratulate her on her calmness. What stays with her is the thrill of having strangers pointing their phone cameras in her direction. Dining out on her good deed, she tells friends: “I’d do well in a terrorist situation.”
Sick of Myself should not be mistaken for the story of Signe’s downfall. She is already wretchedly self-absorbed at the start of the movie, and that’s how she stays. What changes is the scale of risk she is willing to take in her quest for adoration. When she reads about the negative side-effects of a new anxiety medication, she places a bulk order. The result is instantaneous and horrifying. Her swollen face breaks out in livid purple marbling; soon she resembles a plate of hamburger meat with eyes. When Thomas visits her in hospital, where she has been taking selfies with her IV stand, she wants to know if people are asking about her. “Not really,” he replies, jealously guarding his own little patch of the limelight.
For its first 45 minutes, Sick of Myself is bitingly funny in its indictment of our attention-seeking culture. As Signe is wheeled out of hospital, sunglasses clamped over her bandages like Claude Rains in The Invisible Man, it becomes clear that this thirst will never be slaked, no matter how gravely she self-harms or how many front-page interviews she wangles. By the time she is mourning a mass shooting that has relegated her story to the bottom ofthe news cycle, we have got the message that sheis irredeemable.
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Equally evident is the fact that the writer-director, Kristoffer Borgli, doesn’t know how to capitalise on his own premise. Signe simply keeps on being beastly, as do the people around her. These include a magazine editor who employs a blind assistant in the name of inclusiveness, only to roll her eyes as the woman blunders around and smashes glasses – a joke so crass it belongs in a Ruben Östlund film.
It is possible to construct provocative comedy around pitiful or reprehensible characters – Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness) has spent his career doing exactly that – but Sick of Myself never really builds. Its greatest asset is Benjamin Loeb’s impersonal camerawork, zooming slowly into the action or else backing away from Signe, inch by cautious inch, as one might retreat from a maniac. Wide shots filmed from across a street or a room evoke her disconnectedness, her propensity for watching herself being watched.
Thorp’s vanity-free performance could be described as unapologetic but there is more than one way to skin a cat. In the 1937 comedy Nothing Sacred, Carole Lombard plays a terminally ill woman who has her tragic story taken up by a big-city journalist then gets the all clear from her doctor and goes on pretending her days are numbered. This is behaviour worthy of Signe, though the comic kick is greater with Lombard precisely because she never loses her footing on the bad-taste tightrope. Sick of Myself may be the nastier work but it is also the more homogenous one, indifferent to nuance in its blitz on humanity.
How easy it is to see where improvements could be made. Why not bring back the victim of the dog attack midway through? In her gratitude, she could become devoted to her saviour, seeing in her a purity which isn’t there. No point giving Signe a heart of gold. She just needs someone to play against, some innocent dope to offset her own jadedness. Without that contrast, even the most twisted audiences will grow heartily sick of Sick of Myself.
“Sick of Myself” is in cinemas from 21 April
This article appears in the 19 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Axis of Autocrats