For a film that hinges entirely on the deceptive nature of appearances, it’s appropriate that “Who You Think I Am” wears a few genre disguises itself en route to a double-edged conclusion. Leading Juliette Binoche’s unhappily divorced academic through the tricks and turns of online catfishing, the film’s premise seems poised at any minute to break into either a mature romantic comedy in the Nancy Meyers vein or a “Fatal Attraction”-style psychothriller. Rare is the film that would feel equally comfortable following either of those paths; rarer still is one that, somehow, winds up threading both needles, as writer-director Safy Nebbou tucks bittersweet human observations between unabashedly outlandish twists. With Binoche once more on beguiling form, in a role that feels like an unhinged sister to her romantically restless artist in “Let the Sunshine In,” this slinky entertainment can expect numerous distributors’ friend requests.
Premiering in the Berlinale’s often inauspicious Special program — it might have made an offbeat Competition entry, if not for Binoche’s stint as this year’s jury president — “Who You Think I Am” is a surprise package that plays its trump cards with shrugging insouciance, yielding giggles and gasps in equal measure, sometimes at once. It’s certainly a diagonal step up for Nebbou, whose more workmanlike previous features weren’t this breezily eccentric. That said, his unobtrusively polished direction plays it cool, leaving the showmanship largely to the screenplay, adapted from a 2016 novel by Camille Laurens. Well, the screenplay and his leading lady’s endlessly expressive, emotive face — to which Gilles Porte silky lensing tends to besottedly cede most of the frame. Here’s a star vehicle that knows where the money is.
On the, er, face of it, it’s initially hard to imagine how perma-radiant Juliette Binoche — as opposed to her character, fiftyish literature professor and mother-of-two Claire — might have trouble holding male interest in the revolving Parisian dating scene. But life is not a star vehicle, and the script is frank and perceptive about the cloak of invisibility that, past a certain age, even the most charismatic women take on in the eyes of many men.
Already insecure about ageing, Claire remains principally attracted to younger guys; after all, if her ex-husband (Charles Berling) could leave her for a woman young enough to be her daughter, why can’t she play the same field? Claire confesses this and more to her quietly quizzical psychoanalyst Dr. Bormans (Nicole Garcia) in what turns out to be a crucial framing device, dipping the story into shifty realms of potentially unreliable narration and outright fantasy.
After a dalliance with jockish stud Ludo (Guillaume Gouix) fades into unanswered phone calls, Claire nurses her wounded confidence by turning to social media — inventing a fake profile for imaginary 25-year-old fashion intern “Clara” in order to cyber-stalk Ludo and his attractive bro circle. What starts as a mildly vengeful mind game takes a serious turn, however, when “Clara” and Ludo’s handsome, sensitive roommate Alex (François Civil) spark up an intimate, text-based attraction: Messages turn into phone calls, phone calls turn into phone sex, and before long Alex, convinced he’s found his soulmate, is desperate to meet. Claire, meanwhile, is increasingly guilt-ridden over her escalating identity as predatory poisson-chat; the mental health of both virtual lovers takes a turn for the worse, as the film itself spirals into fevered Hitchcockian melodrama.
The filmmaking adjusts accordingly, with jazz musician Ibrahim Maalouf’s hitherto spare, supple score steadily ramping things up to onze. But before that savory point of no return, “Who You Think I Am” works in a lower key as a dry little comedy of manners, milking much mirth from generational conflict and changing codes of online etiquette. (Binoche’s expression of abject, panicked incomprehension when Alex asks for her “insta” is a picture worth the price of admission alone.)
Claire’s repeated therapy sessions with Dr. Bormans, meanwhile, are more than a mere device enabling a secret-bearing protagonist to speak her mind: The two women’s long verbal volleys, played with mutually watchful cunning by Binoche and Garcia, are laced with perceptive, lightly caustic commentary about the disproportionate degree to which women’s social and sexual behavior is scrutinized and judged by society, themselves included. (After she’s teased by friends for being a “cougar,” someone ponders what the equivalent male term is; “Isn’t that a man?” comes the pithy reply.)
“Who You Think I Am” arrives at such truths via some pretty loopy byways, and there will be those who think its merry game-playing skates past the line of silliness. Yet Binoche keeps things credible when Claire starts making no sense even to herself. For anyone who’s ever been catfished or ghosted on the dating trail — or been an offender themselves — her evocation of exhilarated human connection and terrified self-sabotage is uncomfortably easy to empathize with, all written in a rich, deepening network of dimples and frown lines.