Who You Think I Am

Juliette Binoche as Claire

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.

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.

François Civil as Alex
François Civil as Alex


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. “Do you Insta?” asks Alex at one point. Claire has to google it.

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 driving 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









Frank

Maggie Gyllenhall, Michael Fassbender (possibly) and Domhnall Gleeson in Frank

 

Frank Sidebottom was the stage name of musician Chris Sievey, whose Frank was a cult novelty act that toured students unions etc in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s, singing chaotically shambolic versions of well known tunes (it could be Kylie, it could be the Sex Pistols) in a wheedling high-pitched determinedly uncool accent. Frank wore a gigantic papier maché head and made much of the fact that he was from the equally uncool Timperley in Cheshire. I saw him perform once, in the University of London Union, and the memory is with me still.

Jon Ronson, the journalist who co-wrote the screenplay on which Lenny Abrahamson’s film is based, was the keyboardist in Sidebottom’s band. And though the comic meander in front of us is from the viewpoint of a new keyboardist who joins Frank’s ramshackle band of outsiders after the previous one has flamed out, the story this tells works at the level of fable, not fact. It’s not a biopic. Metaphorically, Frank is a big papier maché head.

The affable, shaggily friendly Domhnall Gleeson is our guide, Jon (name entirely coincidental, of course). And he leads us through the flatlining progress of a band who court obscurity rather than success, who would rather die than be famous. We see the first shaky gig after Jon joins them, which collapses after one number. We eavesdrop as the band write and rehearse a new album in a skanky holiday park in Ireland, burning through Jon’s money while treating him with contempt because he’s trying to write songs – songs! We watch as Jon and avant-garde bitch and Theremin player Clara fight for Frank’s ear. We journey with them to the SXSW festival in Texas, where, thanks to Jon’s tireless tweeting, the band suddenly stands on the verge of something they’re entirely unprepared for.

And all the time Frank wears the head – on stage and off – the totem of his creativity, his apartness. Frank is the story of artistic bohemians for whom obscurity is a badge of honour, those doughty souls who though they’d never admit it are more in hock to the image than the work. Beautiful losers, to misappropriate the title of Leonard Cohen’s novel.

Ronson’s decision to dispense with the specifics of Sievey’s/Sidebottom’s life means there’s a universality to Frank. Even so it’s going to come as a shock to some that it’s Michael Fassbender inside that big boggly head (though you could easily convince me otherwise). And that Maggie Gyllenhaal has been persuaded to play Clara. Or, indeed, that Scoot McNairy, fresh from 12 Years a Slave, didn’t have other things to do.

Maybe Ronson and co-writer Peter Straughan’s oddball-packed screenplay for the George Clooney film The Men Who Stare at Goats persuaded the actors to sign on. Maybe they were all fans of the poetic emptiness of Lenny Abrahamson’s trio of brilliant Irish films – Adam & Paul, Garage and What Richard Did.

But how to evaluate in terms of a star rating a film that sets out to sabotage itself? I remember that evening 20 years ago watching Sidebottom perform. He was bloody hilarious for about 15 minutes, wackily charming for the following two or three numbers, but then the absence (who’s inside the head? why is he doing this?) started to grate slightly, before the lack of real purpose – neither aiming for the transcendent hit of beautiful music or the intellectual high of a new insight – began to grate. As with Sidebottom, so with Frank. Where’s the tune, in other words.

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014