Celle que vous croyez was a 2016 novel by the French writer and lecturer at Sciences Po in Paris, Camille Laurens. Ms Laurens won the Prix Femina for an earlier novel and as a woman in her late fifties she was well-placed to write about the sexual adventure of a woman in her fifties who is also a lecturer in Comparative Literature. I wish I’d known this when I started watching the film. I wish I’d also remembered which film directed by Safy Nebbou I had seen several years ago. I didn’t remember until afterwards that it was L’empreinte de l’ange or Mark of an Angel in 2008. If I had remembered, I might have had different expectations and approached a reading differently. The earlier film featured Catherine Frot in a form of melodrama cum psychological thriller. Ms Frot plays a single mother aged around 50 with a small son.
As it was, I sat down to watch Who You Think I Am, broadcast on BBC4 in its Saturday night ‘European drama’ slot, without any knowledge other than the film starred Juliette Binoche. I watched the film with my partner and after about an hour we both agreed that the character played by Binoche was a silly or foolish woman who didn’t realise the mess she had got herself into. At this point my partner decided she preferred to watch the news so I watched the final half hour the following day on iPlayer. I discovered that there were a couple of major twists in the narrative and I began to explore the background to the film in more detail. I realise that because I don’t use social media apps for any kind interaction that involves personal details, I’m not the best judge of narratives that are built on that premise. I’ll have to tread carefully.
Juliette Binoche plays Claire a fifty-something lecturer seen exploring the fate of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, author of Les liaisons dangereuses, with her students. She shares custody of her two sons with her ex-husband and she has just been left by her younger lover Ludo. We gradually learn these details as Claire talks to a psychiatrist, Dr Bormans (Nicole Garcia). Eventually we will realise that the narration in the film is dubious since Claire is in effect writing a story in which she is the central character. It appears that after Ludo has left her, she attempts to make contact with him or perhaps to ‘spy’ on him but she ends up engaging with his friend Alex (François Civil) instead, ‘liking’ one of his photographs – he is a professional photographer. She then makes a decision to create a fictitious profile for herself as a younger woman, ‘Clara’ and makes the details available to Alex. In narrative terms this is a second ‘disruption’ in the equilibrium of Claire’s world (if we take her separation from her husband as the first). Everything that follows is to some extent an outcome of this move. I don’t wish to spoil the narrative for those of you reading this before watching the film but it must be obvious that the narration must engage with the enigma. Can Claire keep this as an online only encounter or will she or Alex decide that they must meet face to face. If that happens, how will Claire respond?
I want to focus on the presentation of Claire/Clara and how this might be read. I was a little surprised by the generally very favourable responses to the film by many leading international critics after its screening at Berlin in 2019. These are to some extent opposed by some of the later audience responses that find the narrative too slow or boring. The film is edited very skilfully with the result that we get caught up in the whirlpool of Claire’s actions and it becomes difficult to distinguish what might be her recollection of what has actually happened and what might be fantasy. Juliette Binoche is on screen for nearly the whole running time of the film. Dr Bormans is mostly watchful and silent so we are not sure what her diagnosis might be. It is actually a complex narrative and I was never bored but something did trouble me. The only critic I read with whom I felt an affinity was Ginette Vincendeau in Sight and Sound. She argues that the narrative offers us a story about a 50 year-old woman taking younger lovers and this promises a rebuff to the assumption that cinema treats older women as ‘invisible’. But really the narrative doesn’t fulfil this promise. In creating a much younger avatar of herself, Claire not only ‘steals’ a younger woman’s identity (i.e uses a photo of a ‘real’ young woman) and also dupes a young man. I understand the whole process is known as ‘catfishing’. Her actions run the risk of seriously damaging the young people concerned and her own responsibilities seem to disappear (we don’t see much of her two sons). Vincendeau further argues that Laurens’ novel “multiplies and contrasts points of view, but director Safy Nebbou’s adaptation flattens out the narrative to Claire’s perspective”.
The key question might be, since Claire successfully found Ludo, couldn’t she find another younger lover a second time ‘in the flesh’ rather than ‘virtually’ through deception? Granted Ludo is a few years older than Alex but still considerably younger than Claire. And Claire is played by Juliette Binoche who could reasonably attract anyone. I did feel that Binoche deliberately tried to make herself less conventionally attractive by her choice of spectacles and hairstyle. She also ‘acts’ the role of a woman taking valium in the way that few other actors can do. By casting Binoche, Nebbou is consciously drawing on our memories of Binoche in similar roles. There is also the intriguing question of what a young man might expect from a liaison with a literature professor. Nebbou offers us an image of a woman whose post-coital reading seems to include Rainer Maria Rilke – I had to look up the Austrian poet’s writings to get a sense of what she was exploring.
The Press Pack Interview has some interesting insights into Safy Nebbou’s approach. He reveals that during the time he was writing the script he himself was duped online by a woman of Claire’s age engaged in ‘catfishing’. He also suggests that as he worked on the film he was thinking about Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Kurosawa’s Rashomon among other filmic and literary references. I note that he has previously adapted a story by Vertigo‘s original authors, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac as Bad Seeds (France 2012. The Hitchcock connection has been picked up by several reviewers and I did feel by the resolution that what I’d seen was a melodrama-psychological thriller that could indeed have been a Hitchcock narrative (or perhaps one by Henri-Georges Clouzot?). Who You Think I Am is a complex and well-made film. It is anchored by the central performance by Juliette Binoche. The co-scriptwriter is Julie Peyr who has worked with Arnaud Desplechin on three films. Nebbou insisted on having a female co-writer. The film is presented in ‘Scope by Gilles Porte and it has a deliberate use of modern Parisian architecture, including what looks like the Pompidou Centre (see the above image). Claire lives “in a modern high-rise, surrounded by windows, a sort of glass box. When night falls, her reflection appears in the picture windows and her double can thus come into play . . . ” (Nebbou in the Press Pack interview). The score by Ibrahim Maalouf is recognisable as a melodrama score, particularly in the climactic sequences. I’ve seen references to the film as a romance. If it is, it seems a dark one to me and one that exists somewhere between reality and fiction.
Who You Think I Am appeared briefly in UK cinemas in April 2020 as the pandemic took hold. It is available in the UK for two months on iPlayer where perhaps a wider UK audience might find it (as they have Lullaby, a film based on another controversial recent French novel). It appears to have sold globally as well and is available on major streamers. I think the film is definitely worth watching despite what I see as flaws. I think some of the more negative responses may be because the film moves into what some might see as American psychological thriller territory. I wonder if an American production company would gamble on a remake. It would be a brave woman who would take on the Juliette Binoche role (i.e. to be compared to Binoche) but it could be entertaining to play at casting the young man. I’m conscious that several of the films I’ve discussed this year feature modern ‘romances’ with ‘scenes of a sexual nature’ as TV channels sometimes warn us. In one sense I welcome this as we are at least seeing ‘adult dramas’ which seem to be disappearing from mainstream Hollywood. But I’m not sure this depiction of online sexual relationships rings true for me. The few older people I know who have tried online dating apps seem to have enjoyed their encounters without resorting to this kind of duplicity.