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Arts & Life

French Film 'Who You Think I Am' Is A Wild Tale Of Shifting Identity

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Diaphana Films

Many French movies about love affairs tend to avoid the subtle. Characters rant and rave, weep and throw things. Director Safy Nabbou’s Who You Think I Am takes another view of wild acting out. For Claire (Juliette Binoche), a good chunk of what she says is made up — maybe.

Claire is in her 50s. She teaches literature at a university, and she likes much younger men. After she’s dropped by Ludo, she creates a fake personality called Clara on Facebook, where she begins a torrid virtual love affair with Alex. The therapist says Claire’s made him fall for someone she is not; Claire responds that Alex likes her voice and how she thinks — and that’s really who she is.

So, the movie asks what makes a person’s identity, and you have the title — Who You Think I Am. But there’s more to this deeply complex character.

Real or imagined, what’s going on is called amour fou — French for insane, obsessive and usually self-destructive love. Under the weight of amour fou, spurned lovers wail and carry on, chase after the one they desire and do all manner of unwise things. Claire contacts Alex obsessively. She’s supposed to pick up her kids at school, but while on the phone she drives around a circle over and over past them. The older son wonders if she remembers she still has children.

Claire follows Alex. She knows what he looks like, but he doesn’t know her, so she walks right by him or stands and pretends to look elsewhere, never letting him out of her sight.

One question is what if anything is actual or if it’s in Claire’s imagination. She presents her therapist with a long manuscript and the film shows what the therapist reads. It’s clear that at least some of the story is fanciful.

The film’s attention rests intently on Claire. Mostly tight close-ups and often in dim light. Claire can look radiant and at other times pale, lined and weathered by age. But Juliette Binoche is one of those stunning actors whose face can hold long close-ups. She’s so profoundly interesting to look at — and beautiful and magnetic — that simply looking at her for an hour and a half is thrilling. Subtle shifts in feeling and attitude cross her face all through the movie, so the face alone is a rich, complicated continuing story.

Who You Think I Am is about a woman’s identity. What is genuine, what is feigned, what is put on for the external, social world. Who does Claire think she is, and who does the audience think she is? She’s all sorts of things. The movie is not about multiple personalities, but here’s a woman driven to try out many possibilities for herself, who does not always choose how she behaves in the world.

Years ago, art historian John Berger wrote that while men are judged by what they do, women are judged by how they are seen. Who You Think I Am exploits the sight of Binoche fully, but she’s actively looking much more than passively looked at. Her powerful look is the issue, and that look shifts all through the movie. She’s a clear and forceful teacher — she knows her stuff. And in class, her look is fierce and in control. At other times, she’s timid and reclusive. And sometimes, she’s just an uncertain mess. So, who we think she is a constant elusive game.

Once at the Telluride Film Festival, a French filmmaker introduced an older movie by saying this is the most French movie he’d ever seen. It was a torrent of wild, chaotic emotion fueled by characters’ extraordinary self-absorption. I can’t recall the name of that film, but Who You Think I Am gives it a run for its money.

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