It’s often said that there are no substantial roles for older actresses, as even the most accomplished performers routinely take up thankless roles as the wife or mother to a male protagonist. The substantial parts that do exist for older women often fall firmly within the “hagsploitation” genre; films that are less frequently produced, but still rely on outdated stereotypes whenever they do appear. This isn’t to diminish the surface level thrills of productions like Neil Jordan’s Greta or Tate Taylor’s Ma, but to highlight that older actresses are often only given enticing material if they are the villain to a youthful heroine, with the desire to recapture some of the youth that evades them being their driving motivation.
This is something inherently understood by Safy Nebbou’s Who You Think I Am (Celle que vous croyez), which takes a premise that could easily be adapted as a straight thriller and transforms it into a character drama of considerable empathy, albeit one that never excuses its protagonist. Working with co-screenwriter Julie Peyr, Nebbou focuses on the perspective of a woman who would often be cast as an antagonistic presence in the life of a younger lead, emotionally manipulating her way into the life of an unsuspecting innocent. But by grounding Who You Think I Am entirely within this perspective, viewers receive a rich dissection of this archetype as the story progresses across familiar narrative beats, using each subsequent twist to further examine the lead character’s uneasy relationship with her age. Nebbou uses the framework of a thriller to add depth to one of the emptiest stereotypes.
More by Alistair Ryder: Review: Hirokazu Kore-eda’s ‘The Truth’
Claire (Juliette Binoche) is still getting over a recent divorce, rebounding with a casual no-strings relationship with a younger man when she isn’t lecturing, or looking after her two sons. However, Ludovic (Guillaume Gouix) proves to be something of a distant love interest, so Claire creates a fake Facebook profile of a woman half her age to start snooping — only to instead capture the attention of Ludovic’s best friend Alex (François Civil), who quickly grows enamoured with her.
Rather than end the exercise, Claire embraces the role of “Clara,” finding herself developing feelings for Alex even as he’s falling for the fake profile he’s presented with. But when Alex becomes insistent on meeting in person, Claire realises that she’s stuck in an unenviable position, having developed too many feelings to easily end the connection but entangled in such a web of deceit that it’s impossible for her to keep going.
Who You Think I Am makes for something of a companion piece with another recent Binoche film, Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In, which similarly subverts screen stereotypes of middle aged women still trying to make romantic connections. But whereas Denis’ film is blunt in its depictions of the realities of meeting the few eligible bachelors left, taking time to characterise as many of the less than desirable partners Binoche’s Isabelle encounters, Nebbou’s film internalises the struggle to find love. During repeated trips to a therapist, Claire displays thorough self awareness as to what she’s putting herself through to chase a romantic compatibility that can’t exist outside her head — a self realisation that often feels secondary within Denis’ more episodic narrative.
It’s telling that UK distributors Curzon brought the release day forward for Who You Think I Am, as life in quarantine means that speaking to strangers over dating apps has become an inherent part of single life. When this is over, many people will find that those they have been speaking to for weeks don’t fit the ideal they had in their head, and that they have merely been projecting their own romantic desires onto them out of a state of loneliness. Evidenced by the success of Netflix’s reality show Love Is Blind, a concept that many people readily scoffed at weeks ago is now taking hold as people attempt to make connections in isolation.
Within Who You Think I Am, the turmoil this idealised romance is witnessed entirely through Claire’s eyes, as she attempts to visit Alex in person and observes his disappointment from afar, or after she speaks to him in an increasingly anguished state on the phone. But even though Claire manipulates a stranger’s emotions, she isn’t an evil presence — she just recaptures the thrill of feeling young and in love, and opts to chase it while overlooking the consequences. It’s a form of emotional manipulation rarely depicted through the eyes of the perpetrator, in a manner not designed as one dimensional antagonism. The catfishing storyline may be an overplayed trope in trashy thrillers, but it doesn’t feel one dimensional in Who You Think I Am. In fact, it’s the rare utilising of this trope that makes it palatable as to why somebody would find themselves taking on a different identity in the first place.
Who You Think I Am may look like a thriller on the outside, complete with increasingly hysterical plot twists, but it actually offers substantial food for thought about the search for romance in an increasingly online world. Stories of older women emotionally manipulating younger acquaintances remain commonplace, but Nebbou’s film manages to find something genuinely human beneath tired hagsploitation tropes.
Alistair Ryder (@YesitsAlistair) has been writing about film and TV for nearly five years at Film Inquiry, Gay Essential and The Digital Fix. He’s also a member of GALECA (the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association), and once interviewed Woody Harrelson, which he will probably tell you about extensively, whether you want to hear about it or not.