There are few things one can count on in this world, but whenever you see anybody posting on Facebook about how #blessed they are “to be married to my best friend,” I assume they’re having an affair. Take it from someone who just spent the saddest summer of his life tweeting stupid jokes to keep up appearances online, the personas we project on social media often have precious little to do with what’s actually happening on the other side of our screens. This gap between these public and private selves is the subject of director Safy Nebbou’s “Who You Think I Am,” a sexy, sophisticated cyber-psychodrama starring Juliette Binoche as a recently divorced literature professor who goes catfishing with catastrophic consequences.
It starts when she’s ghosted by Ludo (Guillaume Gouix), a younger, insensitive lover who abruptly stops returning her messages. Claire’s not exactly heartbroken — they didn’t have that kind of relationship — but she’s justifiably peeved and starts poking around online trying to get a glimpse of the greener pastures for which he’s ditched her. After a little too much wine one night, Claire uses photos of her niece to concoct a phony Facebook profile for a 24-year-old fashion intern named “Clara,” and begins insinuating herself into Ludo’s circle of friends. For research purposes only, of course.
She accidentally hits it off with Ludo’s roommate Alex (François Civil), and the two are soon tangled up in a text-based flirtation that graduates to phone sex before blossoming into full-blown obsession. Claire’s rudely got her face glued to her phone during dinner parties and hides in the closet having conversations when her children are home, so caught up in her affair she forgets to feed them. But the movie’s shrewdest insight is that Claire isn’t really in love with Alex — he’s kind of a generic, sensitive hunk — so much as she’s addicted to being Clara. Claire’s created an alternate world in which she’s still young and desirable and completely in control of this moony-eyed stud who has no idea he’s fallen for a fantasy. She’ll do anything to keep real life from intruding, until it’s too late.
Juliette Binoche turned 57 this year, and the porcelain ingenue we met in the 1980s has aged exquisitely into an earthier, possibly even more radiant screen presence. On one hand, it’s absurd to imagine a beauty like Binoche getting ghosted by boy toys or having any difficulty finding dates, and yet her appearance adds an extra layer of pathos to the character’s longings. “Who You Think I Am” is of a piece with recent Binoche pictures like Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Slis Maria” and Claire Denis’ “Let the Sunshine In,” as the iconic actress confronts her advancing years head-on, a key component of these films being her struggle to accept that you can’t be Juliette Binoche forever — though she’s been making a pretty good go of it so far. As Binoche has gotten older her work has grown deeper and her characterizations more daring. This film is no exception, with a sizable portion of the 101-minute running playing out across closeups of her endlessly expressive face.
Adapted from a best-selling novel by Camille Laurens, the screenplay (co-written by Nebbou and frequent Arnaud Desplechin collaborator Julie Peyr) employs some sly sleight of hand with the film's framing device, stashing increasingly outlandish revelations up its sleeve until the later reels. “Who You Think I Am” keeps recontextualizing itself as it goes along, a character study that always feels like it’s on the precipice of exploding into full-blown erotic thriller but stays somehow in check. If the ending is a little underwhelming that’s because the movie is more about a mindset than a story, diagnosing a modern malaise that no plot points could cure.
Nebbou and cinematographer Gilles Porte work with a visual language of doubles and projections, starting with an early scene of Claire and Ludo eyeing their own naked bodies in the glass while they make love standing up in front of her floor-to-ceiling windows. Whenever possible, we’re not seeing these people as they are, but rather through reflections and assorted other avatars. The film keeps cutting back to Claire’s classroom lectures (an admittedly hoary device I usually hate) where she discusses Marguerite Duras and Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” calling to mind considerations of authorship that comment ironically on what we’re watching play out in her personal life. The line that has stuck with me most comes midway through the film, when Claire describes social media as being “both the shipwreck and the life raft.” But by then, she’s already drowning.
“Who You Think I Am” starts Friday, Sept. 3, at Kendall Square Cinema.