One person stalks another person online in Who You Think I Am (Celle Que Vous Croyez). If it’s not quite as creepy as you might expect, it’s not quite as emotionally engaging as it might be either, which is deliberate. We’re held at arm’s length, while co-writer/director Safy Nebbou gets busy with the mechanics of a plot that reveals all towards the end, and then reveals all one more time.
The plot seems quite straightforward. Claire (Juliette Binoche, great as ever) is a teacher of French literature who strikes up a relationship with much younger man Alex, a friend of an ex lover, on a social network we might as well call Facebook, using the fictitious identity of a much younger woman. She’s maybe 50, he’s about 25 and devastatingly attractive (he’s played by the ludicrously handsome François Civil). A classic catfishing operation develops – she praises his photography, he responds with a “well, thanks…”, before things move on through some sharing of personal details and eventually arrive at profile pictures (she uses one of her pretty niece) and phone calls, Claire leading Alex further into a world of shared intimacy with her voice pitched high and using hastily learned 21st century argot. “Do you Insta?” asks Alex at one point. Claire has to google it.
Is Claire a cougar or is problematising an older woman/younger man relationship just a sexist way of looking at the world? In a classic bit of French-movie exposition, the concept is hashed out a dinner party over glasses of wine and laughter – what do you call the male equivalent of a cougar, asks one guest. “A man,” someone else responds drily.
And in another bit of classic French-movie exposition, it turns out that the book the woman is teaching her students is Les Liaisons Dangeureuses, a novel full of people pretending to be something they’re not. The title is warning enough but Claire’s job and her age situate her as someone from a different century. Alex is a 21st-century guy comfortable in the world of social media; Claire is a 20th-century girl, and one who looks backwards at that.
We don’t judge Claire too harshly because it’s obvious she’s a woman in trouble. Who You Think I Am carefully situates her in a frame – Claire confessing all to her shrink (Nicole Garcia), and revealing how things ultimately ran away with her and she got in too deep. She’s the victim here is the idea, a lamb led to the slaughter in the abattoir of online relationships.
The (dry) joke is that Alex falls for her because she’s not like the other young women he comes across online, being wise and interested in serious things etc. And she falls for him because he’s hot and young and she used to be hot and young too, and she wants that back, and everything that being hot and young gave her access to.
Nebbou shows us that Claire’s fascination with this man does have a rejuvenating effect on her. At parties Claire downs shots and dances wildly. In a scene that’s erotic rather than seedy, Alex brings Claire to a phone-sex orgasm. And Nebbou does it all with a camera that seems to have enabled its Instagram filter setting (I know there’s no such thing). Images are crisp and seem cleaned up, while the editing is sharp and quick. This has the effect of moving the story forward rather than leaving it to sit in the potential murkiness of what’s going on. Ibrahim Maalouf’s soundtrack of sweetly tinkling piano and strings also steers us away from the dark side.
Ultimately, Alex barely figures. He’s an avatar of hotness and youth. This is a story about a woman who, though an academic, has perhaps traded more on her looks than she might like to admit, and is now finding that the curtain has come down on that particular show. In a couple of brief scenes, when Claire and Alex are meant to finally meet in the flesh, he’s there and she’s there but he cannot see her, even though she’s right in front of him. The invisibility of women over 50.
Who You Think I Am offers two alternate endings, one real and tragic, the other happier though also ultimately doomed. The narrative loose ends are all tied up but in doing so the film reveals that it’s been playing the same game with us that Claire has been playing with Alex. It makes for an ending that’s satisfying logically if not entirely emotionally. Emotional reaction – just borrow someone else’s, hey?
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© Steve Morrissey 2021