Who You Think I Am attempts to speak to our current Internet age, but mines only shallowly with its picked-over storytelling mode.
Juliette Binoche, for nearly her entire career, has juggled a specific experiment in actorly debasement and a more conventional luminescence that clinches her top-billing in otherwise forgettable, quasi-romantic fare. If one were to look for a particular film that bridged the gap of these two polar roles, Claire Denis’ Un beau soleil interieur is a perfect, sparkling candidate, which navigates the unspoken precipices of middle age (too late to get [re]married, too young to date, etc.) with near paradoxical vigor, eschewing structure and prioritizing all-encompassing, mercurial mood. Safy Nebbou’s Who You Think I Am was produced around the same time (released in 2019, it’s only now arriving stateside), and even with the benefit of some distance — albeit, as dictated by distributors — it still struggles to work its way out beyond the shadow of Denis’ film, and any other of Binoche’s significant collaborations of the last decade, for that matter.
Strangely enough, Who You Think I Am’s conceit reads as a tempered New French Extremity throwback, The Piano Teacher for the adults-on-Facebook era: Binoche is Claire, single mother, university lecturer, and recent dumpee of her young boyfriend Ludo (Guillaume Gouix), who doesn’t even have the guts to sever ties in person. Claire funnels her unfulfilled desire — and latent obsession — into a Facebook account where she poses as the younger and “more beautiful” Clara, using photos of her niece Katia (Marie Ange-Casta), successfully manipulating Ludo’s coworker Alex (François Civil). Not necessarily an “innocent” decision, Claire’s disappearance into bonafide catfishing is at least treated rationally, the attractiveness of social media disguisement all the more identifiable when experienced by such an avatar as Binoche.
Or is it treated sympathetically? Something’s amiss from the jump, with the disappointingly rote framing device of a psychiatric conversation: Claire’s interviews with Dr. Bormas (Nicole Garcia) set up a fairly predictable three-act structure, so even as we’re coaxed along as if this entire ruse will stem itself safely and naturally, we’re also waiting for the inevitable drop, the exact event that leads us to where Who You Think I Am begins. Much of what transpires, then, plays as merely functional, more content to box Claire in as a jilted, unstable lover rather than liberate her across the Internet. Nebbou casually bends reality around his protagonist, maintaining her’s as the exclusive perspective (which also flaunts the influence of cowriter Julie Peyr, a regular collaborator of Arnaud Desplechin), and an untrustworthy one at that. It’s a disappointing development, couching a picked-over storytelling mode within the unknowability of the Internet, a cheap method of contemporization rather than a vehicle for a true 21st-century narrative.