Who You Think I Am

This French drama about a middle-aged teacher posing as a much younger woman for online romance raises tantalizing questions about how we look upon and relate to each other.

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"There is no greater rival than the one that does not exist."

"Who You Think I Am" is a good movie, but also an interesting one.

Don't laugh; they're rarer than you think. A few films are interesting but not very good, while many others are good yet the experience is like buying your favorite drive-through meal: you know what you're going to get. (Many more just aren't very good.)

This French drama starring Juliette Binoche presents us with a compelling character and story, but then layers in deeper meanings and gives us uncomfortable questions to contemplate. Instead of fast food, this film is like an eclectic meal of seemingly different tastes that don't seem like they would go together, but offer some intriguing combinations and contrasts.

Binoche plays Claire, a 50-year-old divorced high school teacher of French literature who, after being dumped by her much-younger boyfriend, creates a fake Facebook profile of a 24-year-old beauty. She then lures the ex's roommate into a virtual relationship that provides her with countless thrills, but leads down some very dark pathways.

Directed by Safy Nebbou from a script he co-wrote with Julie Peyr, adapted from the novel by Camille Laurens, "Who" is a film that will be of special interest to those who like to think about cinematic gaze. This is how the camera is used to look at things and people from a certain perspective -- traditionally, a male-oriented one that treats women's bodies as objects to behold for pleasure.

With a male director but female source author and co-screenwriter, the movie intentionally jumbles up the lines of the gaze in tantalizing ways. As the audience, we are very much invited to look upon Binoche, ravishing at 57, and think about how Clara could regard herself as old and unattractive. There are times where she is made up to look dowdy and meek, and other times coltish and confident.

But Clara also spends quite a good deal of time doing her own gazing.

Chiefly her eye is cast upon Alex (François Civil), a photographer about half her age. He rooms with Ludo (Guillaume Gouix), a cad who was just using her for sex, and becomes the object of her obsession when she invents the online profile of Clara, a winsome young intern. They begin messaging, which leads to texting and phone calls and genuine feelings between them.

We'd call this catfishing, in which someone uses a false online identity to entrap a victim emotionally or otherwise. We should feel very cross with Claire and the manipulation she employs against Alex, who may be a bit cocky but seems genuinely sweet and taken with "Clara." Even more so when the images she steals for her virtual doppelganger are those of her own niece (Marie-Ange Casta).

But she is clearly getting so much pleasure from being thought of as young and sexy, and we feel the ache of her loneliness, that we find ourselves joining in -- if briefly -- celebrating her ruse.

Of course, it must turn out badly: love and lies are incompatible; one must kill the other for it to survive.

A framing store has Claire speaking with Catherine (Nicole Garcia), a psychiatrist who was recently reassigned to her. The doctor is compassionate but removed, clearly empathizing with Clara but focused on finding the source of her self-loathing.

The story plays out as flashbacks from these therapy sessions. Though at one point Clara begins writing a book to imagine a different way her story could have turned out, and for awhile the movie follows this track.

There's a terrific moment that will stay with me, actually variations of the same one. Alex has finally sought Clara out in the flesh, and Claire actually does show up to meet him. Silently, she looks at him and waits for the moment of recognition to come. But Alex looks past her, again and again.

There's more going on here than just Alex not seeing her because he's used to different photos. At one point they're almost nose-to-nose and she's smiling right at him. But as an older woman, Claire is literally invisible to him.

I've heard or read a number of women talk about this time in their life. They spend their daily existence as teens and young women dealing with unwanted gazes or harassment from men who regard their faces and bodies as commodities they can possess. Then, usually somewhere in middle age, they realize that they are no longer drawing glances from the men around them... and find they miss the cursed attention.

"I'm OK with dying. But not with being abandoned," Claire tells Catherine.

There's also a lesson here about social media and how we present ourselves to this virtual community, which can consist of our closest friends but also people we've never actually met. There's this driving need to always show our best selves, the wonderful times we're having and indulgences we're enjoying. We take 30 photos and only keep the one that makes us look skinnier and younger than we actually are.

We are all, on some level, liars about ourselves.

Clara is both a victim and abuser in "Who You Think I Am." She is a captive of a society that cares too much about looks, and uses those distorted rules to game the system for her benefit. It's interesting that in all her schemes and deceptions, she never once thinks to entrap a man her own age or *gasp* even a little bit older.

I'd also be curious to imagine how this same story would play out if Clara were a frumpy middle-aged dude catfishing a young woman -- I bet we'd be much less charitable toward him than we are to her.

This is the rare sort of movie that you watch, then spend 30 minutes standing outside the cinema, thinking and arguing.