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Review: Who You Think I Am Offers a Muddled Perspective on a Catfish Story

The film ultimately trades its main character’s account of her own suffering for her therapist’s pathologizing assessment.

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Who You Think I Am
Photo: Cohen Media Group

Safy Nebbou’s Who You Think I Am is an adaption of the book of the same name by Camille Laurens, whose work belongs to a distinctly French tradition that sees the world, and men in particular, as an unbearable proposition for women. Laurens’s female characters may have intellectually stimulating jobs, wear high-fashion attire, and live in expansive Parisian apartments decked out in expensive furniture—even on a teacher’s salary—but bourgeois life’s joys mask overwhelming existential violence. Namely, a violence that these women never get tired of restaging, expecting from men what they will never ever give.

That’s certainly the case in Laurens’s Who You Think I Am, though the simplicity with which she typically renders the dominant trope in her fiction is spiked with formal experimentation through the use of three distinct perspectives of the same story. But in the film, the different versions of the story get shuffled into a thriller-esque arrangement, as if the novel’s reason for being lies in deciphering matters of plot instead of connecting with characters’ feelings. If the crux of the book is the emotional consequences of the muddied line between truth and falsehood, the film reduces that to a less subtle game of who’s catfishing whom.

Claire (Juliette Binoche) is a 50-year-old literature professor with two kids, and after she’s dumped by her on-and-off lover, Ludo (Guillaume Gouix), she pretends to be a younger woman online. The goal is to befriend Ludo’s roommate, Alex (François Civil), on Facebook in order to gain access to her ex-lover. But she falls obsessively in love with Alex and forgets all about the man who ghosted her. In the film, the relationship that Claire and Alex develop is conveniently based solely on images and voices—no physical encounters, no gray hairs, no wrinkles, nothing real to betray the fantasy. For Claire, stepping out of the world of meticulously curated illusions into a material encounter is a risk, then, and one that’s bound to be regretted.

The most pleasurable aspect of Laurens’s novel—its intimate articulation of feminine suffering—is eventually diluted here because the filmmakers place a misguided focus on the knots of the storyline instead of Claire’s predicament. It’s difficult not to think of it as a masculinist interpretation of what’s been called écriture feminine, which is rooted in the visceral of the how things happen, not the excitement of the what happens next or what truly happened.

The relationship between men and women, the first apparently always trying to evade the latter’s grip, is what’s truly at stake in the novel. Technology’s role in making this tragic cat-and-mouse dynamic interminable, an endless and painful masturbation, plays a minor role in the book’s true punch in the gut but takes center stage in the film, drowning out what was truly “feminine,” and riveting, about Laurens’s work in the first place.

The splitting of the story into distinct accounts is a mere stylistic excuse for Laurens to take up much more atemporal questions than the contradictory “shipwreck and lifeboat” nature of internet hook-ups, as Claire tells her therapist, Catherine (Nicole Garcia). In many ways, social media in the novel is Laurens’s forced attempt to seem current, but while her writing fortunately overshadows the flatness of Facebook as a narrative device, the film brings the flatness of instant-messaging screens to the fore and scores it all with insistent piano music.

Though the film begins with a series of haunting close-ups of Binoche’s expressive face reflecting city lights as Claire falls deeper into her obsession with Alex, allowing its images to say everything that needs to be said, it ends with an overabundance of messaging screens that say too much. It also doesn’t go out of its way to avoid the cliché outcomes that are common to stories about women who fall madly in love, such as a stint at a psychiatric institution.

As if wanting to extract something Hitchcockian from material that’s closer to a Marguerite Duras novel, Nebbou ultimately trades Claire’s account of her own suffering for her therapist’s pathologizing assessment. This equivocation becomes palpable in one therapy session where Catherine diagnoses Claire’s symptoms for her, leaving no room for doubt or subtlety. Claire, Catherine claims, wants to hurt herself over and over again, in part by taking her niece, Katia (Marie-Ange Casta), as a rival. Claire eventually gets a word in, and it’s one much more in line with the stinging concision of Laurens’s ethos: “I want to die but not be abandoned!”

Cast: Juliette Binoche, Nicole Garcia, François Civil, Guillaume Gouix, Marie-Ange Casta, Charles Berling Director: Safy Nebbou Screenwriter: Safy Nebbou, Julie Peyr Distributor: Cohen Media Group Running Time: 101 min Rating: NR Year: 2019 Buy: Video

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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