Review: The Self Portrait (2020)

Lene Marie Fosse’s self portrait from the photo series “The Gatekeeper”

As we are informed on one of the final title cards of Margareth Olin’s, Katja Hogset’s and Espen Wallin’s remarkable documentary The Self Portrait, anorexia nervosa is the deadliest psychiatric disorder. It has also claimed the life of the documentary’s subject, the talented photographer Lene Marie Fossen, who fell victim to it after over two decades of fighting.

The Self Portrait premiered earlier this year in Göteborg Film Festival, before getting on a (virtual) festival tour, scooping the awards at Biografilm Festival (Main), Krakow Film Festival (Audience) and Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival (Human Values). It was also shown at Dok.fest Munich and at IceDocs at Akranes, Iceland, where we had the chance to see it physically.

After the opening composed of the highly artistic black and white photos by Fossen set against the gentle piano music, we meet our protagonist, a tight-framed young woman hiding her posture by wearing a coat and a hat. The shot was taken from afar and from the back, so the proportion of her skinniness does not seem so grave. Once we get to see her face that gives the impression that she has skipped her adulthood, jumping from childhood straight to the old age, we realize the severity of the physical component of her illness.

Lene Marie then opens up and narrates about the logic of it. She stopped eating when she was ten years old, refusing to grow up, and spent her years since in and out of hospitals and psychiatric wards. There is a philosophical component to it: she wanted to freeze time, and later on her disease was the only thing that was certain for her in an uncertain world.

Ironically, the photography as an art form is the less extreme way to freeze time and it became a huge motivational factor for her to live and to keep fighting, achieving a success and even acclamation in the process. Her work was recognized by the leading Norwegian photographer Morten Krogvold and the crown of her career was an exhibition at the Nordic Lights International Photography Festival in Kristiansund, Norway. The exhibition at Stockholm’s Fotografiska, the leading Scandinavian photographic centre, was in talks, but the illness came in the way.

Lene Marie’s special place was Chios, Greece, where she did some of her best work, including the collection of self-portraits in an abandoned health facility that lead her to fame. In those photos, she exposed her fragility, vulnerability and the pain of the everyday life, with the striking contrasts highlighting the skin, the eyes and the bones, which was everything she had left from her body. Chios was also the place of a personal tragedy, a car accident that set her fight for health to a very difficult course.

The Self Portrait is the story of her choices, her fight, her art, her ideas, the ups and downs, small victories and grave relapses. It is also a meditation on empowering and powerlessness, and even on destiny. It is always tricky to make a film on such a delicate subject, but Lene Marie and her family feel quite comfortable around the cameras. It feels like they are in charge, and the filmmaking trio never out-steps the boundaries while painting a complex, delicate, eye- and heart-striking picture. It is emotional, but it never feels exploitative for all of the 78 minutes of its runtime.

Technically, The Self Portrait is a competent work in which everything is subordinated to its subject and the protagonist. Camerawork by Wallin, Oysean Mamen and Lars Erlend Tubaas Oymo captures the most of what we need to know about Fossen’s art and life, while the occasionally inserted info-cards provide the context when absolutely necessary. The editing by Hogset and Helge Billing is precise, yet meditative in pace, while the musical score by Susanne Sundfor, with the use of the additional music by Kai Engel and Eleni Karaindrou dictates the mood in a gentle way.

The Self Portrait is an absolute must-see, no matter how unpleasant it might be. It is one of those films whose imagery, topics and ideas are hard to forget.

Original title: Selvportrett
Year: 2020
Runtime: 78’
Country: Norway
Language: Norwegian
Directed by: Margareth Olin, Katja Hogset, Espen Wallin
Written by: Margareth Olin, Espen Wallin
Cinematography by: Espen Wallin, Oysean Mamen, Lars Erlend Tubaas Oymo
Editing by: Helge Billing, Katja Hogset
Music by: Susanne Sundfor, Kai Engel, Eleni Karaindrou
Sound design by: Hakon Lammetun
Colourist: Raymond Gangstad
Produced by: Margareth Olin
Production companies: Speranza Film, BR, Arte
Sales: Cinephil