- I have respect for the art of body horror as much as I have respect for humor and satire, says director Kristoffer Borgli who comes to Un Certain Regard in Cannes with his feature film Sick of Myself.
By: John Inge Faldalen
Body horror-cringe-comedy-Crown Prince Kristoffer Borgli has long been among Norway`s most interesting filmmakers, especially in various short formats.
Now the world's most important film festival has also discovered this, and the feature film Sick Girl has been invited to Un Certain Regard.
Sick of Myself is a film that dares to sit in the spectator's esophagus. Larry David Lynch? Borgli - who lives in Pasadena outside Los Angeles and according to his Instagram profile "Basically knows like all the good camera angles" - prefers to ask, and creates both illness and diagnosis in Sick of Myself, a film that (like playwright Henrik Ibsen) apparently does not feel the need to answer, through some suggested cure.
While you wait to see Sick of Myself in cinemas, you can look up the feature film Drib (2017) and the short films on the website www.kristofferborgli.com
There is, among other things, the short documentary Whateverest (2013), which like Signe (Kristine Kujath Thorp) in Sick of Myself deals with a character with ambitions and a penchant for self-medication. "No bad days" is the slogan long before pop artist Sigrid recently promised only some bad days ("Bad Life").
Feel free to also watch A Place We Call Reality (2018), an artist's semi-ironic sensory quest to develop body, mind and even with the help of Taiwanese bodybuilder Frank Yang (who also uses violence against Jordan Raf in the music video Scales of St. Michael), with neck collar or without moving the legs. "Everything is art", cries the main character (played by Borgli himself, as "Self", according to IMDb), before he plants a knife through his hand. Motivational here points to both blood, destruction of skin and body, and public humiliation towards Sick of Myself.
The Loser (2019) is an "interview" with author David Shields that captured in Borgli's voice never comes a clip ("Ask me a freakin question") and a better-prepared podcast with author Bret Easton Ellis ("Do not film this »). Shields tells here in Emil M. Cioran's words that the only thing that matters is "learning to be the loser".
Softcore (2020) is a bloody affair, and do not miss the masterpiece Former Cult Member Hears Music For The First Time (2020), which depicts an extreme hypersensitivity to music.
The recent short Eer (2021) is the enjoyable and disgusting brother of Sick of Myself, where it is impossible to take one’s eyes off a nearly broken ear ("it's just my ear"). "No one's looking for comedy right now", it is said, but tragicomically, people throw goods out of shopping bags and it leaks ("open leaking") from uncontrollable bodies ("falling jaw disorder") and body openings in free decay.
Like in Sick of Myself, the theme is embarrassing self-destruction.
The Cannes confirmation
So, how does it feel to be in Cannes?
- It's just a very nice confirmation for me as a filmmaker. Especially because there has not been an attempt on my part to target Cannes with a film language that one thinks may have the opportunity to be represented there. I want to be uncompromising with my work and have stuck to it. That this is valued is very nice for me. I did not expect to be invited to Cannes at all. It is a motivation to continue exploring the paths I have already begun. Then we will see when the film comes out if people agree, but it is a good indication that it has a value beyond that I think it is funny, says Borgli.
In recent years, a new generation of Nordic filmmakers has made its mark on Cannes, with the Palme d'Or for The Square, the award for The Worst Person in the World, and the critical acclaim for The Innocents.
- In the past, there may have been a tendency towards something I have thought of as self-exoticization, where you try to see yourself through, for example, the eyes of an American audience: "What is exotic to them?" Yes, there is a sheep farmer who stumbles into the field. Or snow-filled landscapes with lots of silence. Strange characters who are unable to communicate with each other. It has never been my reality, says Borgli.
Which already has several new things going on.
- I already have a couple of projects underway in the US, one that will be shot this year, and one that is in development. Nevertheless, Cannes gives a seal of quality that can open new doors, he says.
The video store's film history
Borgli's distinctive path to filmmaking began when he worked in a video store in his Norwegian home town Sarpsborg in his late teens.
- It was a local one-off called American Way of Video, with 6000 titles on VHS. It was not just new DVDs, but a fairly large archive of film history preserved. While working, I was most interested in sitting and watching movies on the TVs in the room. And I took three or four films home after work each time, lost a night's sleep, and ruined the next day to be able to watch as many films as possible, says Borgli.
Who met Coen, Lynch, and Anderson through the video store.
- I've always loved movies. My father had a film club for a while, and my brother worked in this video store, which I eventually started working. So movies were always present. But it was not until my late teens that I realized that you could go back to the same director and experience a specific expression or point of view - that you experienced the same quality by going back to Coen films, David Lynch or P.T. Anderson. When I worked in the video store, Punch-Drunk Love came out, and I recommended it to everyone. Customers came back and yelled at me because they thought it was a completely lousy movie. All these films were probably the seeds sowed in me that later became an obsession, he says.
Borgli also opened his eyes to shorter formats.
- During this period, I also came across these Directors Label DVDs with, for example, the music videos of Spike Jonze, which put me on the trail of shorter formats and that was very interesting to me as well. Until then, feature films were the only thing I cared about. It thus opened up that I started experimenting with shorter formats, I made some music videos, and did it for a very long time, he says.
Started for himself
Did you start for yourself?
-Yes, and then it has somehow just become a life.
A bit like Tarantino or Kevin Smith, or the French New Wave?
- With the French, it was probably more academic that they were film critics and filmmakers, while Tarantino and Kevin Smith were probably more nerds. I was more in that category, that I saw more, but that it was not very academic, says Borgli.
So you did not set foot in any film school, is that what you say?
His voice and idea creation
Borgli has spent time creating his distinctive cinematic voice.
- Early on, you try to find your voice by emulating others. But then you see that "I do not make this work", and that it only remains a copy of something. The first thing I can still look back on as something that comes from me is a short film called Whateverest. Documentaries can be an extremely affordable way to make movies: a camera and a microphone. You are not dependent on creating cinematic finesse, so the film could reach its full potential with the very limited funds we had, says Borgli.
The short films have themes that are taken up again in Sick of Myself, such as self-medication in Whateverest and skin destruction in Eer
- Yes, fictitious drugs have for some reason become an interest. Eer is a bit random too. Sick of Myself has been in development for a long time but was postponed due to covid. So it was a longer development phase where I got to work on making this skin disease which is very central to the film. I found a collaborator in New York, where we worked for a long time at the sketch stage to come up with an expression we were happy with. Then came the time that was "now we have to try it on a person, how it is photographed and everything", and then we agreed that he should come to LA to work on a model to do tests. Then I thought, "While he's here, why not make a short film too?" And then I had a vague idea about a person who had a rotten ear, and that there is something you do not talk about in the film. It was the seed and the idea that came out of that collaboration. In that way, it is a bit coincidental that they have so much overlap because there was overlap in the development phase. But I have for a long time had an interest in deformity and prosthetic makeup, which is traced back to Cronenberg and Chris Cunningham, who I have had an early fascination with, and Lynch, who was one of the early big favorites I found in the video store where I worked, tells Borgli.
How do the ideas come about?
- I do not have such a method that I could have had a master class about and explain to others. It's almost more like the ideas choose me, the things that become undeniable, that you can not let go of. Ideas that bother you, so you just have to get them out, he says.
How about, for example, the idea for Former Cult Member Hears Music For The First Time?
- It is such an insane bliss to come across a good idea. And with just that idea, I tried to remember how I got there: "What were the steps there?" It's quite abstract. What got me on track was that I found a video of a lady listening to Vince Staples. A rap song and a Christian conservative mother. She sits and explains to the webcam that she drove a car with her daughter and listened to the song. Then she tries to recite the song and starts crying because it's so awful what the lyrics are about. "What's so interesting about this?" I thought. It was fun to be able to experience music through her ears. The point of view she has is far from mine, but I can imagine what it is like for her to hear a completely random rap song. The video gave me an interesting experience. Then I tried to think "what is an extreme version of it?". “What about someone who has never heard music before? It must go wrong. " Then I thought of clickbait videos where people get to see colors for the first time, for example, the tearful, opportunistic clickbait economy. Then I mixed this second idea with the first: "How can they work together?" So the film becomes a kind of satire, says Borgli.
Who also sees links to the Norwegian traditional fairy tale about The Fox's Widow
- The idea was that it must go wrong in a way. The first idea was that she was just starting to burn. But it is very expensive to get, so I made something cheaper. That she was stuck at the table was the cheapest I could think of. I did not think of The Fox's Widow before I cut the film, since the table had such a tree trunk under it. So then the film made sense as a fairy tale as well. Exactly all that is a process that can not be repeated, I think. So I do not have, for example, such a Lynch method of transcendental meditation. But I'm interested in trying to have a more pragmatic process. I have not found it yet, so so far there is more magic and luck, says Borgli.
Lots of scrolling on the internet?
- Probably everyone does, but it is probably more procrastination than efficient work. At least I - and probably many others - rationalize scrolling Reddit as research. But there is a lot of wasted time sitting online. Outside free will, one is attracted to various things, and it is difficult to decide what to be attracted to. It is beyond my control what I manage to keep interested in. Carl Jung said that people do not have ideas, but people have ideas, says Borgli.
Style and Sick of Myself
How do you develop a style, like slowly zooming in or out of characters?
- Again, it's mostly intuition. You sit and go through a text long enough, refining the idea over and over again based on intuitive taste. So there is no such regulation, at least it is not the regulation in my consciousness. It is intuition that governs what I fall in love with. Why I like 16 mm or low sun are things I have not decided to love. It's taste, simply, says Borgli.
What do you want to say about Sick of Myself?
- Now no one has seen the film, so I do not know how much we will reveal about what the film is about. "Hold back as much as possible," says the team behind me. And I want to respect the mystery and hold back. In the picture that has been released, we see her with a bandage around her face. And I can say that it is a very demanding main role. Kristine Kujath Thorp is in 98% of the pictures, and the film is carried by that main role. There are make-up effects that take a very long time to apply, and there are almost superhuman demands for how much we should extract from that main role, a tiring character with a lot of madness, which is demanding to play and be. Physically, there are also some slapstick elements, with a body that shakes or has difficulty swallowing. So all hail to Kristine who managed to fight her way through the shooting phase with all those challenges. It was amazing to see, says Borgli.
Who was lucky with the timing of the shooting.
- It was under the best conditions that have been during the pandemic. It was the lowest infection numbers, and no one wore a mask or anything. We have several large cityscapes in the middle of the city center, which would have been difficult because we chose not to accept that a pandemic is part of the film's universe. It was a choice I had to make at some point. It felt like when we started production that "the pandemic is over, now everyone takes vaccines and the numbers are very low". It was a feeling of being done, so I did not want it in the movie. "When the film is finished, it will be old and new." But of course, that's not how the story turned out. We are still doing this, and there was a new corona wave right after we finished. So we were lucky that way, he says.
"Narcissism" is a word that is used frequently in Sick of Myself. And several of Borgli's films deal with various self-centering, from destroying the physical body to seeking spiritual enlightenment.
- Narcissism is so incredibly present these days, a problem we only make worse with social media and all these ways of cultivating oneself. It is so clear that it is almost impossible not to talk about it. An even more economy has been built around being a victim. It creates an incentive that most people think "you can not gamble on that". But this character does what few would do. Few will act on that incentive. Culturally, the victim role is now created as the hero role. It's such a real phenomenon that even Jussie Smollett, who despite his full Hollywood success and having won in the normal story of being recognized in his field, still has an appetite for a different kind of recognition, in another race he has no merit in. Therefore, he is drawn so far into it that he stages an assault to create the whole story about himself. It is a real example that is as wrong and twisted and characterized by madness as what Signe does in Sick of Myself. This script began around 2017, and the Smollett story is just a confirmation that it is not so far-fetched, says Borgli.
How did you end up in Hollywood?
- There are two reasons to move there. One is the weather. I get weather sickness and winter depression. Moving there was a cure for something that was a problem for me. The second is that it makes a lot of sense as a filmmaker to move here. It expands the opportunities you have to make films, that there is an arena in Norway, and that there is a world arena here. And I want to have my feet here in the USA too, says Borgli.
Who uses a social anthropologist's view of the surroundings.
- There are quite a few interesting cultural or social anthropological observations you can make here. My father is a social anthropologist, and although I have not studied the field, I have probably inherited some interests in observing human behavior in different cultures. As it is, for example, in a kind of creative Oslo environment in Sick of Myself. I started writing that script the year I moved to LA, but I have lived in Oslo for ten years, so I feel like an insider, he says.
What do you find in such an Oslo environment?
- I'm interested in humor and bad behavior. I want to build humor on facts from myself or the people I have around me. It is well suited for film. I have an extra-large appetite for cringe and social awkwardness, says Borgli.
Who especially appreciates Larry David.
- I grew up with Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. I'm influenced by Larry David. And Woody Allen, of course, at least the seventies movies have had a good influence on me. My journey began with being preoccupied with Haneke and Lynch, and I felt that I should do serious things, which have a kind of exalted status. Comedy was a bit of low culture. So I had a kind of pretentious image of myself that I should be an important filmmaker like Haneke. But I never managed to get those interests alive enough for me. I even made fun of myself because the ideas were too pretentious. So there was no way around it: Humor is one of the most important ingredients in the recipe. I had to embrace it rather than end up denying it, being something I am not. And then I feel that I have become very comfortable with it. It's something I feel when I see my things - that it comes alive, says Borgli
Then it's extra cool that Cannes just recognizes your type of comedy?
- Yes, when they announced the films to Cannes, they said "It's almost a comedy" and "You can laugh". Haha. It was a perfect presentation of the film. It has not been a tactic, but maybe there is a tone in the market, an open space that I can squeeze myself into? With a slightly different tone? If there is a specific mindset or rules I have, then it's just trying to hold on to something that I feel has emerged, follow up on what works and stick to it, says Borgli.
Which is comfortable in making the spectator insecure and insecure.
- With humor things, I think that you should put it a little in “the other throat” as we say in Norwegian, in the esophagus, so that you do not know how to digest a scene. "Is it okay to laugh?" There are interesting topics outside of the film as well. "Where's the limit to what's okay to joke about?" It also provides philosophically interesting discussions that sneak into the movies. I like things that are not humorous. You get an extra pay-off if you build humor that is a little uncomfortable. I also have a big appetite for discomfort, says Borgli.
Which also creates distinctive black humor based on people’s flaws, where the characters often provoke their flaws in a new type of body genre.
- It is a self-created problem for Signe. At times, Sick of Myself is slapstick body horror or humorous body horror perhaps. I have taken seriously the body horror element, what the skin disease looks like, and how it is filmed and treated. I have not taken it lightly, I have not thought that "it should only be a comedy, so it can be easy". I respect the art of body horror as much as I respect humor and satire. So it's a mix of several fascinations that I place just as high on the scale of importance. In that sense, it is sometimes confusing when what feels like a dark body horror drama suddenly becomes a joke because the genres are equally respected, he says.
Maybe it's this combination that makes you so special?
- Maybe it is.
Because the film alternates between genres along the way?
- It was a wish that I should start the film as a romantic drama, start there and thus plant certain expectations in the audience. The fact that one has started in a completely different genre makes it very surprising where the film eventually goes. I want to control the expectations of the audience. This is also the case with Former Cult Member Hears Music For The First Time, about a woman who has escaped from her sect family. And it's treated 100 percent like Nowness or another hip media site would treat it. So when she hits her head on the table, it's hopefully so surprising that it has the same effect as on the characters in the room. "We did not expect this at all." The idea is also to start a film as Sick of Myself in a world you recognize, not in a twisted universe. I think it's about setting up a contract with the spectator from the start: "This is the same universe you live in. If vampires show up here, it's as surprising for the characters as it is for you." In a vampire film, it is not surprising to the audience at all. With film, you can set the premises exactly as you want, and the moment of surprise comes out of expectations. If the expectation is that "anything can happen", then nothing is surprising. The universe we encounter at the beginning of Sick of Myself is more recognizable than where we end up, says Borgli.
Sick of Myself has its international premiere in the official program Un Certain Regard during the Cannes Film Festival on May 17-28.
This interview was first published in Rushprint.