On paper, the appearance in the notoriously patchy Berlinale Special section of Who You Think I Am (Celle que vous croyez) looked like a favor to its star Juliette Binoche, president of the festival’s jury. But this sly genre-blending picture, the sixth feature by the journeyman French director Safy Nebbou, turns out to be one of the more worthwhile of the festival. It’s a deliciously rug-pulling affair which, like the “catfishing” protagonist — i.e. a person hiding behind a fake online persona for deceitful purposes — comes across as one thing and gradually reveals itself to be quite another.
Of especially strong appeal to mature female audiences in France — and, of course, much further afield, thanks to Binoche’s marquee appeal — this adaptation of Camille Laurens’ 2016 novel should overcome its forgettable title to become a steady box office proposition in multiple territories. An English-language remake could also plausibly follow, though few would relish stepping into shoes previously occupied by an Oscar winner who already has nine best actress Cesar nominations to her name. Expect that tally to hit double figures come January 2020.
Catfish a la Francaise: Conventional-looking dish yields surprisingly sharp flavors.
Not for the first time, Binoche shows a willingness to acknowledge and address her own “advancing” years here. As highly successful Paris-based literature professor Claire Millaud, Binoche plays a little bit younger than her actual 54. But this is clearly a woman in middle age, struggling to cope with the inevitable changes to her appearance (she cites her “heavy eyes and fading complexion”). These insecurities are compounded by the fact that Gilles (Charles Berling in a brief cameo), her longtime husband and father of her two boys, has recently run off with a woman easily young enough to be her daughter.
Claire finds herself increasingly attracted to relatively junior males, such as rugby-dude Ludo (Guillaume Gouix), with whom she’s enjoying a somewhat sputtering relationship as the film’s action begins. Their highly unsatisfactory (for Claire) breakup leads to her capriciously creating a new online persona: the 24-year-old “Clara Antunes.” Based on the social media profiles of Claire’s own niece, “Clara” strikes up a internet-based, then phone-centric, friendship with Ludo’s roommate Alex (Francois Civil). This quickly deepens into something much more sensual, the pair effectively becoming amorously involved without ever having met in real life.
Alex’s willingness to engage “Clara” in such a way for so long is not the first aspect to strain credulity: That a successful and intelligent woman with Binoche’s looks would have any love-life difficulties requires considerable suspension of disbelief. But the fact that the whole story is being recounted in therapy sessions to Claire’s new psychiatrist Dr. Bormans (Nicole Garcia) will alert experienced viewers not to take everything at face value.
Even the most seasoned fan of twisty romantic drama, however, may find themselves pleasantly surprised by the second-half convolutions and revelations in Nebbou’s screenplay (co-written with Julie Peyr), which strikes a nifty balance between seriousness and humor (Binoche’s navigation and adoption of 2010s slang is LOL amusing). Without giving too much away, the viewer realizes that Claire isn’t necessarily the sympathetic and merely mildly eccentric figure we’ve been taking her for.
Previously best known for 2008’s Mark of An Angel, which also dealt with a middle-aged woman suffering from mental health issues, Nebbou handles proceedings with in a confident and slick manner. He deploys Ibrahim Maalouf’s score with restraint before amping it up in the delicious final seconds. It’s a satisfying denouement to what has in effect been a “catfishing” narrative told from the catfish’s own POV. Claire only grasps the seriousness of her sustained deceptions when she hears of a tragic development around the hour mark (its shattering impact boosted by a rare, vertiginous directorial flourish). This casts a darker hue over all that follows, including an extended sequence in which Dr. Bormans reads the story Claire has written based on her own recent experiences and the tale-with-in-a-tale is depicted onscreen.
Now the flintily sympathetic therapist moves closer to center-stage; only she has the distance to jigsaw together the full picture. Terrific veteran Garcia (a sometime writer-director who received the first of her five acting Cesar nominations back in 1980) works quiet wonders with a tricky, largely passive role, which mainly consists of responding to Binoche’s monologues. But Who You Think I Am is very much the latter’s show: The ever-busy actress is on impressive quicksilver form here as a dissatisfied, anguished and complex woman whose drastic behavior yields, temporarily at least, one last mid-autumn blossoming.
Production company: Diaphana Films
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Francois Civil, Nicole Garcia, Marie-Ange Casta, Guillaume Gouix
Director: Safy Nebbou
Screenwriters: Safy Nebbou, Julie Peyr, based on the novel by Camille Laurens
Producer: Michel Saint-Jean
Cinematographer: Gilles Porte
Production designer: Cyril Gomez Mathieu
Costume designer: Alexandra Charles
Editor: Stephane Pereira
Composer: Ibrahim Maalouf
Casting director: Constance Demontoy
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale Special)
Sales: Playtime, Paris