A woman’s face is submerged in water, her eyes fixed just to the left of our own. Her skin is pale, her lips are closed. A vein pulses above her right brow. She is surrounded by darkness, seemingly dazed, her body motionless. As though to signal that she’s still alive, a bubble breaks at the water’s surface, forming rings that radiate out from her mouth to halo her visage. Fifteen seconds pass and not a blink. She seems at once to sink into the abyss and wait for the moment to come up for air.
In this first, disquieting shot in Who You Think I Am, Saby Nebbou’s sixth feature, released last weekend, Juliette Binoche confirms her status as possibly the most captivating actor onscreen today. Her vulnerability is disarming, her immersion into her character entirely without vanity — the latter all the more powerful as she plays one of her most vain and narcissistic protagonists to date.
Meet Claire Muillard: divorced mom and colorfully scarfed professor at a Paris university, whose lectures resemble Ted Talks, if Ted Talks were ever about literary heroines like Marquise de Merteuil or Ibsen’s Nora. Ditched by her Millennial lover at the start of the film, a bearded twerp named Ludo (Guillaume Gouix), Claire fabricates a Facebook profile under the name “Clara Antunes” to stalk him online. When a flirtatious message arrives from Alex (François Civil), Ludo’s waggishly handsome photography assistant, Claire can’t resist playing the part of a woman less than half her age. So far, so Facebook. But, like so many catfishing cautionary tales, what starts as a bit of indulgent masquerade spirals into wild manipulation. “Do you use social media?” Claire asks her shrink (a poker-faced Nicole Garcia, who looks like a chillier Candice Bergen). “For people like me it’s both the shipwreck and the raft.”
Despite such self-awareness, Claire doesn’t know when to sink to the bottom or paddle ashore. Smoking alone on her balcony, dolefully watching traffic from her glassy apartment complex, she is every mid-life crisis cliché, and yet Binoche never kowtows to pathetic stereotypes. Though hardly the first narrative to present an accomplished academic woman making lousy romantic choices, Who You Think I Am offers a plausible enough set of circumstances: a 50-something beautiful woman loses her husband to another, presumably younger, woman and is desperate to feel wanted again. The stakes of her deception, initially at least, seem low enough. A woman who’s seen the world, Claire has seen a lot of male ego — and clearly knows how to play to Alex’s, complimenting his photos to tease him in, sprinkling her teenage sons’ slang into her texts to sound younger than she is. And in many ways, throughout their courtship, she is equally seducing us — mocking her therapist, a foil for the audience, for getting off on the thrills of vicarious living. Part of what makes her character engrossing is how easy she is to root for, how much we want her palpable loneliness to vanish through any means possible — until, of course, we don’t.
Quite convincing is Binoche’s ability to change her timbre to imitate a 24-year-old; her voice is softer, slower, nervously giggly when she is admired. “Your voice is very young. You’re legal, I hope,” Alex jokes. Less believably, Claire posts a profile pic that closely resembles a Bella Hadid Instagram selfie (but, as we learn later in the film, her decision of whose pics to filch are hardly “random,” as she at first insists). In this way, Who You Think I Am reveals the propulsive power of the voice to building both erotic and emotional intimacy. Some may say that Alex would have demanded to meet Claire in person, but it seems plausible that he’d also, initially at least, want to lose himself in the fantasy of Clara, an “intriguing” intellectual fashionista, just as Claire would want to indulge in Alex.
The comic aspects of Claire’s ruse abound, and grant the first half of the film a welcome dose of levity, including believably cringey moments, as when she circles around a high school parking lot chatting with Alex on her phone while her befuddled offspring chew gum and stare from the sidewalk. Others are more sad than funny — for instance, Claire rolling around her bedroom floor, emulating the moves that “Clara” makes in a selfie of an amateur pole-dancing session.
Nebbou’s adaptation of Camille Laurens’s hit novel can at times be a bit overly expository, relying on dialogue for information that can easily be conveyed through image, but the script also subtly (then not-so-subtly) gestures to the hypocrisy of sexist double standards for aging lovers. “You thought you could introduce me to your sons? I could be their brother,” scoffs Ludo before tucking out of their Uber. When a man across the table dubs Claire a cougar at a dinner party, a female friend asks, “We say ‘cougar’ for women, but what’s the word for men?” “We say ‘man,’ no?” is the response, followed by hearty laughter. When Claire does finally decide to meet Alex, at Gare Montparnasse, ravishing on the moving walkway, he looks right through her. True, he has no idea that she’s his “Clara,” but her invisibility in this scene is painful to behold.
France is famously a culture in which lusty madams can remain sexual as they age — and has produced at least four films in the last three years in which a now 57-year-old Binoche disrobes and gets it on. But rather than fête Claire as a 21st-century Colette, the film exposes the dangers of seeking infatuation above all else. “It’s important to you that people find you beautiful and young,” her therapist observes, when questioning why her client would enjoy receiving attention meant for a woman who looked nothing like her. Claire’s candor in response is refreshing, if the consequences dire. “It’s a pleasure I’ve never wanted to give up. I like being looked at, being pretty. Don’t you?”
Nothing rejuvenates more than being enamored of another, because arguably nothing makes one feel utterly clueless and arrogantly all-knowing all at once. We witness Claire’s spectacular transformation most strikingly within the most pedestrian of settings: a two-minute-long take set exclusively in a supermarket detergent section, where she speaks to Alex through her headphones. “Something’s happening with us,” he tells her, after she admits that it’s been a long time since she’s “felt this good with someone.” Frozen mid-aisle, she beams brighter than the row of fluorescent lights above the frame. “It doesn’t happen like that … in one day,” she at first posits breathily, 20 years lifted from her face. “Sometimes it does,” he demurs. “The proof.”
In the next scene Claire meets up with her ex-husband, Gilles, who marvels at her new ebullience. “I’m liberating myself from you,” she says, strutting ahead. “It’s totally kickass.” In the following scene, Claire downs a few flutes of champagne at an academic party, heads to the center of the room, and dances exuberantly, her hair, in a French twist, falling around her shoulders. “I wasn’t pretending to be 24,” she asserts to her therapist later. “I was 24.”
Without giving too much away (there’s a reason this drama is also marketed as a “thriller”), part of why the film is worth watching is to see how quickly Claire capitulates to her obsession, how far she takes her reckless behavior. One of the delights of Binoche’s recent work is the wide array of unambiguously immoral women with zero apology: In Claire Denis’s High Life, she’s a tormented space-age murderess; in Olivier Assayas’s Non-Fiction, she’s a polished adulteress; and in Nebbou’s latest she’s a professorial catfisher and negligent mom whose iPhone dramatics disrupt her own undergraduates at the campus library.
Not unlike Gena Rowlands, whom Binoche counts as one of her favorite actresses, she may be best known for her midlife movie roles rather than for her breakout roles in her 20s. Unlike films which suggest, misogynistically, that women are inherently prone to deceit, or films which insist, quixotically, that women are always the more virtuous sex, Who You Think I Am acknowledges erotic double standards without simply blaming it all on the patriarchy. Claire behaves badly in part because other men have treated her badly, but she is ultimately accountable for herself and doesn’t pretend to be any better than she is. An anti-heroine for the digital age, she beguiles and baffles at equal bandwidths.
Who You Think I Am is currently in theaters.