“I don’t mind dying, just don’t let me be abandoned,” is the desperate plea of middle-aged woman, Claire, in a virtuoso performance by Juliette Binoche in Who You Think I Am. The film, based on a novel by Camille Laurens, is directed and co-written by Safy Nebbou (Mark of an Angel, The Giraffe’s Neck) and examines identity and aging.
Manipulation and deceit are at the heart of the plot. The lengths Claire goes to are immoral and dangerous, underlining just how desperate she is to present as attractive to a young man in order to find love. Claire’s refusal to accept the brutal truth that she is no longer viable to pull the sort of men she desires leads her to assume a fake virtual identity online.
It’s a stretch to imagine another actress in the role, a masterful performance that explores a myriad of nuance and emotional issues. There’s a reason Binoche has starred in more than 60 feature films, received many international awards, and has appeared in theatre and dance performances across the world. From The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), The English Patient (1996) through to the extraordinary Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) and sexy sci-fi High Life (2019), Binoche is, as Chocolat co-star Johnny Depp described her, “a force of nature.”
Sils Maria also examined a woman’s loss of power through ageing but Who You Think I Am is more akin to Three Colours Blue where director Krzysztof Kieślowski made full use of Binoche’s ability to communicate layers of complex, raw emotion.
In Who You Think I Am, we see Claire’s instability and fragility contrasting with the power and confidence in her career as a university lecturer. Her casual young lover Ludo (Guillaume Gouix) likes the no-ties sex but when he is turned off by her emotional neediness Claire is ripe for the trap of instant gratification through social media. Here she can mask her real age, express the woman she feels she is inside by adopting a 24-year-old, sexy persona to attract the susceptible young Alex (Francois Cîvil).
In the set-up scenes we find Claire in therapy and learn that she’s been struggling and depressed for some time. Her long-term therapist has suffered a stroke and an older female doctor (Nicole Garcia) is filling in.
“Do I have to start again?” she asks plaintively while trying to break the older woman’s professional detachment to engage in a woman to woman sharing about the dilemma of ageing.
Binoche is an arresting presence, yet her age renders her invisible to the man she wants to attract. The brutal truth is that desire can’t be forced or demanded, and the younger man is likely influenced by biological triggers to seek a younger woman to mate with. We feel frustrated with Claire’s inability to accept the inevitable, but Binoche takes us to a primal place of need that renders her position tragic.
She plays a terrific segment at the onset of the online romance, she’s high, buoyant and reckless exactly as if she’s in a ‘real’ relationship. If we convince ourselves what we want to believe, then our feelings don’t distinguish truth from reality. There are humorous moments in her adopting young people’s slang, and her ignorance of basics of social media. These touches offset occasional lapses into melodrama and some grinding of a philosophical and existential debate.
Otherwise Nebbou and Binoche have made a terrific go at setting questions about women’s ageing in a modern context. The questions are perennial, as suggested when in a lecture Claire quotes Marguerite Duras (1914-1996): “At eighteen, I was already old. I don’t know if this happens to everyone, and I have never asked. I remember once hearing about this momentum of time that can sometimes hit you at your youngest, most celebrated ages in life. This aging was brutal. I watched it claim my features one by one.”
Who You Think I Am is in cinemas August 1, 2019