Tuesday 7 April 2020

Electric dreams: "Who You Think I Am"

The cool French drama Who You Think I Am offers the sight of a stiletto being slipped, very elegantly, onto the other foot. Safy Nebbou's film, adapted from Camille Laurens' novel, opens almost exactly where 2017's Let the Sunshine In left off, with Juliette Binoche - here, as divorced single mother Claire - in therapy, searching for a renewed raison d'être; it proceeds to have her recount the story of how she set about catfishing her own younger lover and wound up seducing his best friend, in the guise of twentysomething fashion intern Clara. A stage is being set for another of La Binoche's uniquely self-reflexive vehicles, harking back to the likes of Certified Copy and Clouds of Sils Maria in the emphasis it places on the creation of a character, the playing out of a part. The first hour is mostly our heroine alone in her glassy riverside apartment (a promise of a transparency she herself foreswears) tap-tap-tapping away at her keyboard, only her eyes visible above the crest of her laptop, reaching out for connection even as she sets down a thick tissue of lies. What follows unfolds along the same knife edge as that nicely ambiguous English language title. At a stretch, you could see something romantic about Claire's imposture, as there was in Cyrano de Bergerac, a text the character has to have read in her day job teaching literature. Yet given that Nebbou lights Claire's home like a lair, we might also wonder how far this woman is prepared to go. Desire, in this century as in any other, remains a dangerous game; even when sitting behind screens, people still end up getting hurt.

The decade since David Fincher's The Social Network has given rise to what we might call a cinéma du Facebook, yet that time and space has chiefly been filled by American commercial enterprises - think 2014's Unfriended or 2018's Searching - peddling straightforward action and suspense. Perhaps we needed a French movie to come along and remind us anew of the philosophical implications of social media: how the green light that signifies a contact is online serves as reassurance we are not alone, how the bloop indicating an incoming message triggers the release of dopamine in the brain that wouldn't ordinarily be there, how the infinite possibilities of this new virtual reality are often more compelling than the humdrum, flesh-and-blood one we exist in. (Realest scene in the whole film: Claire at some swish dinner party, tuning out her fellow guests' talk to sext her clueless toyboy under the table.) Unlike its zeitgeisty, varyingly conservative US predecessors, Who You Think I Am refuses to get unduly het up about the technology itself. As a catfishing narrative, it's unusual in having next to no interest in the object of its cyberstalker's affections, approached for the most part as an avatar on a pop-up window or a voice on the other end of a phone. When he appears in person, it's in the form of François Civil as Alex, one of those tousle-haired mecs that come ten-a-penny in French movies; who he is proves of far less importance than what he represents to her, for this is at heart a character study, monitoring a middle-aged woman desperately trying to be seen and heard. Logging on each lonely night empowers Claire to raise her voice elsewhere, heckling the coach at one of her sons' basketball games, even - zut alors! - carrying on a conversation in a public library. It just happens to be somebody else's voice, and that's where the tension lies.

Some absurdity is built into this premise: as with Let the Sunshine In, the narrative is dependent on the idea that all the good men in Paris could possibly overlook Juliette Binoche. In a bid to tamp down some of Binoche's signature radiance, the filmmakers have encouraged her to grow out the silver slivers in her hair and adopt Liz Lemon specs; these, of course, have the opposite effect of making this woman appear doubly distinguished and chic. You'll always struggle to obscure a performer this luminous. Still, something about Laurens' tale hooks us, nags at us, keeps us watching. It yields one taut, near-thrillerish sequence as the increasingly frustrated Alex uses a phone-tracking app to try and intersect with Clara, and we realise Claire isn't just tied to her online persona, but trapped by it; the sequence works towards a double-edged punchline, as our heroine again goes unseen in the crowd, this time by her own doing. Mostly, Nebbou is content to foster a seductive nocturnal mood that reflects this is the time of our most intimate online interactions. The whole film is charged with the prospect of imminent erotic activity; equally, though, it's open to the idea everyone on screen might merely be fumbling in the dark. That much becomes apparent in the second half, where we're led to question the extent to which Claire has been truthful with us, and surprises start leaping out of the holes in her narrative. Even here, though, Who You Think I Am seems less concerned with chicanery than diagnosing what makes Claire dissemble so, and several of the film's mysteries are allowed to persist beyond the closing credits. Its disarming singularity of tone is likely down to the use of Binoche as an organising presence: it'd be easy to imagine matters getting trashy indeed with a less ruminative actress in the lead. Hard, though, to find a better recent example of how a star can elevate and legitimise potentially dubious material.

Who You Think I Am is available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema from Friday.

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