When we meet Claire (Juliette Binoche), she is a middle-aged divorcée shaking off the end of her marriage by shacking up with a young hunk named Ludo (Guillaume Gouix). When Ludo ghosts her, the frustrated Claire makes a fake Facebook account as 24-year-old “Clara” to do some snooping, but instead ends up making an expected connection with his roommate, Alex (François Civil), who has no idea “Clara” is really old enough to be his mother (quite literally!—Civil played Binoche’s son in 2011’s Elles). What starts as innocent online flirtation becomes constant phone calls becomes love becomes lust becomes obsession. But what is Claire to do when Alex wants to meet “Clara” in real life?
There are so many ways this premise could have gone so, so wrong that it’s shocking that it all goes so, so right. Tonally, a tale of deceit and obsession like this could easily be Lifetime movie trash or a ‘90s-movie-starring-Ashley-Judd popcorn flick, but writer-director Safy Nebbou and his cowriter Julie Peyr take their cue from Camille Laurens’ 2017 novel and adapt it as a Hitchcockian thriller, full of gradually building dread, unexpected turns, and carefully composed images drenched with double meaning. And, of course, it is always a struggle to use modern technology in general and social media in particular in a movie without it coming off as window dressing at best and cheesy, hackneyed, or plain out of touch at worst, yet impressively Facebook is used here like people actually use Facebook, giving the online romance verisimilitude.
But what it all comes down to, what holds this movie together when the thriller portion amps up and twist after twist starts to pile up and you start to see the toweringly complex plot start to teeter, is Binoche. The entire movie turns around the Claire performance—it has to—and she is up for every challenge. In the excellent, insightful “making of” featurette included on the new Blu-Ray release of this 2019 film (newly released in English by Cohen Media Group, distributed by Kino Lorber), Binoche relates her role to a Russian doll in the nested versions of Claire’s personality: Claire, the sad and lonely; Claire, the exhausted mom; Claire, the confident, intellectual comparative lit professor who fantasizes about reading Rainer Maria Rilke poetry in bed with her lover; and, of course, “Clara,” the confident and free romantic, everything that all of the other Claires wish they could be. Then there’s one more to tie them all together: Claire, the patient, in scenes with her new psychiatrist Dr. Bormans (Nicole Garcia). That’s yet another thing I could have mentioned in the last paragraph of things that could have easily gone horribly wrong but didn’t: therapy scenes are an easy trope for lazy writers to cut plot corners, to make the characters say the unsaid out loud, to force personal eureka moments. Nebbou and Peyr keep these sequences tightly focused on the shifts in Claire’s personality as her relationship with Alex develops, from sheepish to confident to combative. These scenes are used to frame the story without overwhelming it for the sake of plot expediency.
Much is asked of Binoche in this role and she nails every bit of it. For a huge chunk of its runtime, the film is centered around Claire’s relationship with Alex while it is still entirely virtual—we see Facebook chats, we hear Civil’s voice as Alex on the phone, but we never see his side of the conversation. The entire visual portion of the romance is captured in Binoche’s face—the initial trepidation, the elation that meets each new contact, the apprehension at being found out—and it’s all utterly convincing, a truly captivating performance.
Nebbou and his cinematographer Gilles Porte filmed Who You Think I Am digitally, giving the film a rawness that amplifies the tension inherent in a story built on one whopper of a lie. The pair clearly spent a lot of effort in the careful composition of the shots, as there are so many scenes that leave the viewer struck by their visual intensity and inventiveness despite the mundanity of what’s happening in a literal sense—a woman teaching a lecture, a woman on the phone in the supermarket, the anticipation when those three little “the other person is typing” dots appear on the screen. Nebbou definitely makes this movie thrilling, and he’s also not afraid to make it sexy, with a handful of tasteful yet powerfully erotic interludes that shock the viewer’s system as much as the plot’s twists and turns.
The first two acts are pretty flawless, but as the film careens toward its end, there are a few surprises that border on incredulity. But whenever Nebbou takes things a little too close to the edge of ridiculousness, he’s pulled back to safety by the strength of his visual craft and by Binoche’s ability to sell anything he throws at her. Odds are, when the screen goes black and the credits roll, you’ll find yourself overall quite satisfied by Who You Think I Am. | Jason Green
Who You Think I Am is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber, and is also available for digital streaming through Kino Now. The film is in French with English subtitles, and extras on the disc include a 38-minute “making of” featurette and the film’s trailer.