Juliette Binoche moves through the French drama “Who You Think I Am” as if possessed. From moment to moment, her character — an academic with a turbulent inner life — looks tense or wildly happy. Emotion, by turns, lightens and darkens her translucent face, and changes her body, gait and gestures. She laughs, she cries, expands, contracts. At times, she all but floats down the street, buoyed by the love of a younger man. Then again, she may be less high on him, per se, than on how he makes her feel.
Filmmakers can get a lot of mileage just by filling the screen with Binoche’s face, which is often a movie’s greatest special effect. It’s a lovely face, eternally so, yet while beauty tends to pull us in, it doesn’t necessarily hold and bewitch us, keeping us hooked. But Binoche is a virtuoso of sentiment, with a mesmerizing control of her face. She can soften, harden or crumple it into blotchy fragments, and then effortlessly piece it back together, with or without ragged seams. And while she’s a great weeper, more impressive is how these inundations, these eddies of feeling, move under her skin.
You get to know Binoche’s character, Claire, through the modern-era version of the confessional box, a.k.a. a shrink’s office. She’s a mess, and a guy is to blame, or so it seems. What transpires proves more complex or at least complicated. There are two guys, Claire tells her new therapist (Nicole Garcia), both perfectly coifed and readily undressed. When the first (Guillaume Gouix), dumped her, Claire reveals, she turned to the modern-era version of the devil, a.k.a. social media, to spy on him. With a seductive photo and a fake identity, Claire transformed into the much younger Clara, sneaking into his life and then into that of the conveniently situated lover No. 2 (François Civil).
There are twists and turns, some obvious, others preposterous. Characters come and go (Charles Berling pops in too briefly as Claire’s ex-husband), and time slips away as Claire giggles, glows, musses her hair and loses her bearings. Throughout, there are gestures toward larger issues, including desire, beauty, gender and age. There’s a lot of talking, some dancing and more talking, this being a French movie. In one funny, pointed scene, Claire drives in circles frantically talking to a lover on her cell while her puzzled, exasperated sons watch, waiting to be picked up. Binoche seems to be having a good time, but her character could have benefited from fewer tears and histrionics.
Binoche nevertheless fluidly navigates all the narrative switchbacks and emotional storms, enough that you may not mind the pileup of strained developments and coincidences. (You may, however, snort at an expedient car accident, but only because it’s such a howler of a cliché.) You realize all too soon that Claire has a way of making things — life, love — more complicated than need be. Then again, as cutaways to her lecturing in a university classroom remind you, she does teach novels of intrigue and deception like “Dangerous Liaisons.” Given this particular movie, she presumably also lectures on “Cyrano de Bergerac” and topics like the dissimulating heroine.
It’s understandable that the director Safy Nebbou, who shares script credit with Julie Peyr, keeps his focus and camera so relentlessly on Claire. (The movie is adapted from a novel by Camille Laurens.) Yet because much of the rest of the story is so underdeveloped — notably Claire’s intimate life with her frustratingly generic children — the character overwhelms everything, including the fragile realism. Some of this is obviously intentional: Claire relates swathes of the movie in the therapist’s office, so it’s all about her. Yet while Claire’s therapist (or rather Garcia) turns out to be an ideal audience, the kind of transference that makes movies work never happens.
Who You Think I Am
Not rated. In French, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes. In theaters.
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