Juliette Binoche’s luminous face first appears underwater in “Who You Think I Am”, a fascinating character study of a 50-year-old woman troubled by love. The Oscar-winning actress seems to excel in the role of women who are disappointed by men. (See his fantastic turn in “Let the Sunshine In” as the ultimate in this genre).
In this new film, Binoche’s character, Claire, stings after being ghosted by her young lover Ludo (Guillaume Gouix). This, after her husband Gilles (Charles Berling) left her for a young woman. Coming back to Ludo, she poses online as Clara, a fashion intern in her twenties. She does this to befriend Ludo’s handsome boyfriend, Alex (François Civil). Alex falls in love with Clara and Claire is invigorated by their long conversations. (They even have sex over the phone.)
“Who do you think I am”, however, doesn’t play this cat fishing game wisely as a prank. Director and co-writer Safy Nebbou (adapting Camille Laurens’ best-selling novel) seeks to explain why Claire behaves this way. She recounts the relationship with a new therapist, Dr Catherine Bormans (Nicole Garcia). Additionally, Claire can be an unreliable narrator. What makes the movie so captivating is the way it distributes different information as the story unfolds.
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This approach allows Binoche to play two characters, Claire and Clara, on different timelines, past and present, and the actress delivers a rich and multi-layered performance. “Who You Think I Am” both offers Binoche’s pleasures as a cougar while playing an older woman dealing with her anger at men who don’t see the value of older women. (Claire even tries to bond with Dr Bormans about this). What makes the movie so great are moments like when Binoche watches Alex at various venues as he stares right past her. Her gaze is captivating – gauging the man Claire loves in a non-physical way.
Binoche spoke with Salon about the creation of “Who You Think I Am”.
The film is about, as the title itself suggests, about being seen, about being watched. Dr Bormans even asks Claire at one point if she likes to be watched. As an actress and spokesperson (for Lancôme), you are often “exposed”. What are your thoughts on this?
I never felt I was exposed. The challenge for an actor is to start with the “inner” world. What you do is connect with your being, cross the lines, and connect with other people – the actors and the director. There is a courage that an actor must have to expose the story, emotions, thoughts and feelings of the character. But I have used myself – my sensitivity, my experiences and my body to convey the story I have to tell.
Lancôme was another story. You are trying to be human, even if it is more difficult because it is an image; it tells a different story. In a film, there is an arc, a transformation. It’s a different matter; it’s not a picture, it’s a story, and you want to touch people and their humanity. It’s the game. It’s a movement between you and the audience.
Likewise, Clara allows Claire to “live another life,” which is what you do as an actress. Can you talk about getting into character, expanding the lives of the women you play?
I start with my sensitivity. As in the film, she creates a profile from a photo that she chooses and which is not her. She decides: what would attract a young man? As an actress, I try to understand the needs of the character I have to play. It comes from a different place. In a movie, it’s deeper. You don’t create a profile in a movie. You use the sensibility of a screenwriter and carry the writing into life through words, and work with other people: the director, the cast and the whole crew. The implication is different.
What do you think about the way we build personas online and in real life to try and show who we want others to see us, rather than who we are? You could say we’re doing it now in this same interview if you want to get a meta.
I try not to do it! [Laughs!] I try to be as real as possible! We have an expression in French, “Lying like an actor, or pretending, like an actor”, and for me, it has always been the opposite. For me, acting is telling the truth through the words of the writer, of who I am through this story, and the character that I create with the director, and the writing that I have. I try to be as truthful as possible with the support I have. Just like I talk to you on the phone.
There is a scene in the movie where Claire is discussing with her friends about being a cougar, but there is no term for men who have relationships with younger women. (They are just called “men.”) What observations do you have about the older woman / younger man dynamic?
In the movie, the way it’s told, it’s a middle aged woman who feels abandoned by her husband who has a relationship with a younger woman, so she consequently decides to go with a younger man. . [Ludo] and feels mistreated – not loved; it is not a satisfactory relationship. Until she creates this avatar [Clara] and it amuses her, and she plays with it and begins to believe it. What touched me in the film is that she realizes with her therapist that she cannot accept being abandoned. It is difficult for her, especially since she has given a large part of her life to her ex. Many women are in this position of being dumped because men panic at the approach of death or are unable to have sex. They reinvent their lives to continue this illusion. Faced with this feeling of abandonment, she declares: “I can die, but not be abandoned, because it is unbearable.” It was interesting to address this question of abandonment that we all have to face one day.
Likewise, Claire has a freedom to be selfish. What can you say about its agency and its independence?
She can’t stand to feel abandoned. She was abandoned by her husband and then by this young man. She makes up this story to survive, but it doesn’t work and she sinks into a deeper depression. She is not yet released. She led a conventional life – married with two children, a university teacher, and everything was fine. It was a perfect standard family. Then her husband leaves and she feels betrayed. How do you deal with betrayals? No one is ever prepared for this. Are you facing the truth or are you lying to yourself to survive? The more you lie to yourself, the harder it is to cope with it.
She was never released. She’s trying to survive. It’s not easy for her to go with a younger man. She plays when she creates that avatar / Facebook identity, but it’s a reaction rather than a liberating choice. His belief system is different. She takes off with this idea of this relationship. People [chatting] online can feel good to have these kinds of exchanges. But there is no reality because it passes through a medium which is not real.
You’ve worked with some of the world’s greatest filmmakers. What observations do you have on the opportunities that you have had in your career to deliver indelible performances?
I live in the present time, so every time it’s a challenge and it feels like a first movie and it’s difficult. It never gets easy. But I am still very passionate about what I do. He never leaves. What I love is stepping into a new world and working with new people. Even when I work with the same director, it’s always new, because it’s a new character, or a new setup with other actors. With Bruno Dumont, or doing “High Life” and “Let the Sunshine In” with Claire Denis, these are very different films. I feel very lucky, and I feel [I’ve gained from] works a lot too. It comes from work and prayer to my good stars.
What I liked most about your performance was a scene in which Claire dances with reckless abandon at a party. She is free and happy for what has probably been the first time in a long time. (It was more captivating than the phone sex scene which perhaps expressed the same emotion). What can you say about letting go and comedy, which is, as they say, more difficult than drama?
I never feel like I’m choosing a movie to be serious. It doesn’t matter to me. It’s just that maybe the story interests me more, or I like working with the director. I did How to Be a Good Woman, which is a comedy, and I love comedies. It’s a lot of work. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
“Who You Think I Am” has a story that sounds like a farce, but it’s actually very serious.
You try, as an actor, to give depth. Even in comedy, you try to have a grounded place for people to relate to in a real and truthful way. If it’s not rooted in an emotional place that is true, you can’t laugh at yourself. It’s too superficial. This film is a tragedy. How tragic is it to be dumped by a partner you’ve lived with for 20 years? All of a sudden you are alone! This is the Greek tragedy! If I wasn’t going to give it the depth it needed, you wouldn’t believe it.
“Who You Think I Am” opens in select theaters on September 3, followed by a nationwide rollout.