Physical-distancing erotic melodrama is the genre we didn’t know we needed. But now we’ve got it, in the form of this very enjoyable picture starring Juliette Binoche from French director Safy Nebbou, who has adapted the novel by actor-turned-writer Camille Laurens. The resulting story of obsession is intriguingly like something by Ian McEwan, with a vinegary dash of 90s Hollywood thriller. The opening shot of Binoche looking enigmatically up at us, her face immersed in water, a tiny air bubble lingering at the nostril, is surely an allusion to Glenn Close’s famous moment from Fatal Attraction.
This is a tale of si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait: a world of alternative identities and alternative realities, the substitute images and life stories we fabricate for ourselves on social media and everywhere else. The film was conceived before our great crisis, and before FaceTime and Zoom were so current, though it should be said that the failure of one character to demand or even mention FaceTime is a tiny plot glitch. But everywhere else the movie delivers robust storytelling, with a couple of pleasingly outrageous twists.
It is told in confessional flashback by divorced literature professor Claire Millaud (Binoche), speaking to a psychotherapist (played by film-maker and actor Nicole Garcia) to whom Claire has been assigned after what appears to have been some sort of terrible breakdown. Claire had been involved in a relationship with a good-looking young guy, Ludo (Guillaume Gouix) who enjoyed the sex but refused to get emotionally involved, and ended the relationship one evening by simply ghosting her, refusing to take her phone call, using his flatmate Alex (François Civil) to answer, with facetious and insulting excuses.
Nebbou shows how the cruelty of this – and the heedless, innocent cruelty of desirable young people in general – sows a seed of obsession in Claire’s mind. She logs on to Facebook with a view to stalking Ludo, but instead finds herself interested in Alex, and creates a phoney account for an imaginary sexy young woman, with fake profile images and videos, who sends a pert “friend” request to Alex. Soon they are direct messaging and talking on the phone, but Claire teasingly refuses to meet, offering only phone sex. Their socio-sexual-distancing becomes a psychopathic grand passion, destroying both predator and prey.
It’s a queasy inversion of the romantic fantasy in You’ve Got Mail and also the good-faith thought experiment involved in Spike Jonze’s movie Her, in which a man of the near future falls in love with the Siri-type AI voice emanating from his computer’s operating system. What this film is doing is dramatising and satirically amplifying the malice, manipulation and deceit in all social-media flirting and friend-making. We all create images of ourselves that are better than we really are. The film hints also that this is merely a streamlined and digitally efficient version of the showing-off people once did anyway, face-to-face. Claire lectures to this effect on Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
More even than this, Claire’s sinister sham reveals something rather sensational to her. It is not a sham. It is the truth. Claire knows, deep in her heart, that she is young. She is, after all, a very beautiful and desirable – as well as brilliant – woman. Now she realises that years of life experience and practice have made her better at being young than the young: better at sex, better at being entrancing, better at the forms of spontaneity and intimacy, and also better at precisely that capricious trifling with which Ludo (and also Alex) once broke her heart – crucially, on the phone. But her increase in expertise has run in parallel with the deeply unfair (though minor) deterioration in physical desirability. Now social media has corrected that. Claire can be now post-young, or young 2.0.
Of course, it can last only as long as Claire can stand to be physically apart from Alex, and as long as Alex can endure it. A crisis is coming, and when it arrives, the film cracks in half and offers us another kind of imagined truth, another kind of fiction that offers insights that the literal truth can’t. Binoche’s performance and the movie are elegant, ingenious and sexy.
• Who You Think I Am is available on Curzon Home Cinema from 10 April.