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'Who You Think I Am' is a psychological drama for the modern age

★★★☆☆

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Alliance Française French Film Festival

One of the most acclaimed actors of her generation, Juliette Binoche stars in three separate films in the Alliance Française French Film Festival, which began in Melbourne on Wednesday March 6. In Safy Nebbou’s Who You Think I Am, Binoche plays Claire Millaud, a divorced, 50-year-old lecturer adrift in Paris. Evaded by her lover Ludo (who, as played by Guillaume Gouix, pretends not to know Claire after they have sex), Claire turns to the internet. Creating a fake Facebook account, she becomes Clara, a 24-year-old in the fashion industry. Through this new, second identity, she strikes up a relationship with Ludo’s housemate Alex (François Civil), as the film gently turns gears from digital romance to psychological drama.

Predictably, a relationship founded on duplicity cannot end well. The two (or is it three?) initially bond via messages, with Claire’s narration laid atop short scenes of her glued to her screen at dinner parties or at home on the toilet. These scenes may be superficially familiar to anyone who’s had a relationship in the digital age – especially one over distance – but it’s hard not to be reminded of superior films, like Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, another genre-blurring, Paris-set film with texting woven into its fabric.

However, one of the film’s strengths is its interest in having multiple selves, not only in the way it slips from genre to genre but through Claire’s dual identity, too. The narrative is framed by discussions with Claire’s new psychologist Dr. Bormans (Nicole Garcia), which gradually peel sback more of Claire’s pain and sadness. Nebbou is empathetic to his protagonist’s morally murky situation. Claire is using the internet not to escape into “another life”, despite Dr. Bormans’s claims, but to construct the life she’s always wanted. Being Clara allows her a clean slate, free of external expectations about Claire’s age, marital status and life. “I wasn’t pretending to be 24,” she says. “I was 24.”

That empathy also extends outward to those affected by Claire’s duplicity. There’s a funny scene where Claire, desperately trying to have a phone call with Alex and hide the relationship from her two sons, avoids picking up the boys from school by driving around the carpark in circles. The scene nails how insular a relationship can make us. That idea is expanded on in a later, much more painful scene: Claire lying to Alex in an attempt to spare him greater pain. We’re able to empathise with both of their heartbreak. The camera stays on Binoche, her face red, strained and full of regret, as everything else momentarily fades away – her sons included. As she strains to maintain both her selves, everybody involved suffers.

The film becomes slippery when it contorts in increasingly melodramatic twists, making it difficult to grasp whether we’re seeing moments real or imagined. In a late scene, Dr. Bormans raises the possibility for a happy ending, rather than the tragic one the whole film has been building towards. Ultimately, both Claire and the film create multiple endings, allowing us to choose the ending we feel best suits the story.

Who You Think I Am runs until Wednesday April 10 as part of the 2019 Alliance Française French Film Festival.