In his fifth feature, French director Safy Nebbou marshals a game Juliette Binoche through a twisty-turny plot that is equal parts psychological melodrama, romance, and genre thriller. But while Binoche is reliably magnetic and the fitfully pretty visuals match a ripped-from-the-headlines script, Who You Think I Am’s pot never quite comes to the boil.
Claire Millaud (Binoche), a university professor in her 50s, is recently divorced with two kids. Early in the film’s first act, she is dumped by her twenty-something fling. Binoche is a terrific casting choice on which to hang such a narrative – not dissimilar to Sebastián Lelio’s remake of his Gloria with Julianne Moore – but here with the delicious genre twist of Binoche as an online catfish.
Claire’s confidence takes a knock after she’s dumped by her rebound toyboy, so on a whim, she takes on the new, young persona of ‘Clara’, quicking hooking herself puppyish admirer, Alex (François Civil). It’s like an episode of the reality show The Circle, and indeed many of the film’s lighter moments early on involve the middle-aged Claire frantically looking up online slang so as not to blow her cover. As their virtual attraction grows, Claire finally speaks to Alex, who tells her she ‘sounds younger than I expected’.
Their conversations turn to the intimate, culminating in an intensely erotic sequence in Claire’s car that captures the exhilaration the early moments of sexual tension and release. A semi-surreal shot of her bathed in blue light at her desk offer glimpses into her interior state of mind. Unfortunately, the narrative being told in flashback to her psychiatrist, a cooly sceptical Nicole Garcia, is an early hint that Who You Think I Am is a little too reliant on dramatic conceit over actual drama.
This problem is confounded when the film – for an entire act – journey’s into Claire’s fantasy that she has actually met Alex. It’s the sort of idea that could be sustained for a scene or two, but stretching across nearly half of Who You Think I Am’s runtime adds little to our understanding of Claire, her relationship with Alex, or her guilt for the consequences she has wrought on his personal life.
As the film’s second half trundles on, Claire’s intense unlikeability seriously begins to hamper enjoyment. She is secure, well-paid and in a fulfilling job, yet she is fixated on the one area of her life that isn’t perfect. Who can’t relate to that, one might argue, but relatability demands connections – which Claire has vanishingly few of. A few dinner-table comments are thrown glibly from out of frame about double standards, but Claire seems to have few friends who could give us access to her psychology, save for the psychiatrist who is resigned to staring at her glumly.
Her disregard for Alex’s interior life and her own self-gratification hints towards sociopathy. A film with a keener grasp on its’ protagonists’ inner life beyond feeling sorry for herself could have done something more interesting with this, especially with the reveal of the origins of ‘Clara’. Instead, we are left with little more than Claire’s sulky flights of fancy.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell