Juliette Binoche ‘catfishes’ a much younger man in Safy Nebbou’s twisty social-media drama.
Juliette Binoche movies come thick and fast these days. Who You Think I Am is the fourth film featuring the French star released in the UK this past year, hard on the heels of High Life, Non-Fiction, and The Truth, which only came out a few weeks ago. At this rate, I’m fully expecting La Binoche’s latest, How to Be a Good Wife, to turn up sometime over the weekend.
Based on Camille Laurens’s 2017 novel, Who You Think I Am shares Non-Fiction‘s pre-occupation with social media. Olivier Assayas’s film presented us with a group of bourgeois, middle-aged marrieds struggling to come to terms with the online world as its sands constantly shifted beneath them, impacting their lives, jobs and romantic duplicities. Director Safy Nebbou’s focus here, though, is on one deeply unhappy, 50-something woman – Binoche’s Claire – for whom the virtual world is “both the shipwreck and the lifeboat” as she tries to negotiate post-divorce life. Themes of obsession and deception loom large in Nebbou’s previous films, such as Angel of Mine (2008) and Dumas (2010), and Who You Think I Am is another smart and satisfying exploration of them.
A single mother and lecturer in French literature (significantly, her students are studying Dangerous Liaisons), Claire’s husband has abandoned her for a woman young enough to be his daughter. Claire is also in a relationship with a younger partner, Ludo (Guillaume Gouix), but he seems to want her for nothing more than sex (the kind found only in movies, whereby exhibitionist couples do it while pressed up against huge, artfully-shot windows). Angry at Ludo’s latest snub, she decides to keep tabs on him by ‘catfishing’ his photographer roommate, Alex (François Civil). She sets up a fake account on Facebook and poses as ‘Clara’, a 24-year-old fashion intern, even using photos and videos of her suitably blonde and pouty niece to deepen the subterfuge.
Despite the fact Alex and Claire/Clara have never met, the pair soon grow closer and increasingly intimate, exchanging messages and are rarely off the phone to one another. Inevitably, Alex grows more and more desperate for them to see each other face to face, while Claire has to come up with inventive ways to prevent that from happening. This is all told in flashback, Claire relating her story to a psychiatrist (Nicole Garcia), whose inclusion as a framing device – and eventually more – always feels a bit clunky.
The film proceeds pretty much as you expect it to for the first hour, channelling elements of thriller and farce, Claire hatching plans and making excuses to keep her would-be lover at arm’s length. However, Who You Think I Am becomes knottier in its final act, moving away from a straightforward tale of romantic deception into areas that are, story-telling wise, altogether riskier. After Clara and Alex’s ‘affair’ appears to end, fiction and reality suddenly become less easy to untangle, and several twists are delivered – one of which is genuinely very smart indeed. In these climactic scenes, it feels like a different film in some respects and is all the better for that.
Twenty minutes in, I did wonder whether Nebbou was going to give us a Fatal Attraction for the social media age, but Who You Think I Am‘s flirtation with a revenge plot quickly fizzles before the film moves off into far more interesting areas. Claire is a complicated character who pendulums between sympathetic and unsympathetic a dizzying number of times (Nebbou’s persistent use of mirrors, screens and windows in the film literally reflecting her fractured identity). You feel her pain – her husband’s infidelity has clearly been like a bereavement – but are nevertheless appalled by her actions. If anyone can breathe life into this damaged, perhaps even dangerous woman, it is Binoche, whose turn as lonely, lovelorn Isabelle in Let the Sunshine In is echoed here to a certain extent. She makes Claire’s hurt palpable, her grief almost unbearable. You want her to stop – for the sake of the sons she neglects, yes, but mostly to prevent her own downward spiral continuing.
Nebbou has an obvious affinity for female characters of a certain age. It’s particularly visible in Angel of Mine (in which Catherine Frot believes her supposedly long-dead daughter is alive and living with Sandrine Bonnaire) but again here. We’re used to cinema’s habit of pairing nondescript men with women clearly out of their league and I particularly like the way Nebbou – along with co-writer Julie Peyr – references that with Claire’s ex-husband, a man so grey and unmemorable you half-expect him to whip out a pipe and a pair of slippers. It isn’t just the loss of her partner to a far younger woman that hurts, but that Claire feels she has wasted a good chunk of her life and youth on someone undeserving.
Thankfully, the days in which female characters in their forties, fifties and beyond were denied a sexual component to their fictional lives is long over – the likes of Gloria, Let the Sunshine In, Book Club, and the HBO TV show Mrs. Fletcher (starring the fantastic Kathryn Hahn) have seen to that. Nebbou and Peyr certainly do their bit here, as well as impressively skewering certain double standards – “We say cougar for women, what’s the word for men?” asks one dinner party guest when Claire talks up her new relationship.
Claire refuses to accept that growing older should rob her of a sensual life in which she is attractive and desired. Her relationship with Alex may be fake, but at least she feels seen again. At one point, looking back at her behaviour, she even says: “I wasn’t pretending to be 24, I was 24″ and there’s a poignant scene in which we see her far younger avatar dancing in a video, Claire beaming with delight and half-copying her movements in the darkness of her apartment as if it was actually her onscreen. Of course, she isn’t being seen at all because Alex thinks she is someone else and Nebbou plays with that irony for all its worth, especially towards the end of Who You Think I Am when Claire appears to view Clara as a rival rather than an alter-ego.
For all its strengths, though, there are moments in the film that never quite add up. If Claire feels so unattractive – “a woman with heavy eyelids and a fading complexion” – then how come she has found the confidence to hook up with a handsome (if astonishingly shallow) young lover, like Ludo? And a scene where she tries to meet Alex off a train, hoping to reveal her true self at last, only for him to look right through her, stretches credulity. Of all Who You Think I Am‘s myriad deceptions, the one in which grey hair and a pair of nerd specs are enough to make Juliette Binoche invisible, is its least successful.
Who You Think I Am is now streaming on Curzon Home Cinema
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