Juliette Binoche on playing a catfishing 50-year-old: "She cannot accept being abandoned"

The actor spoke to Salon about her new film "Who You Think I Am" and playing the truth in comedy and tragedy

Published September 3, 2021 5:00PM (EDT)

Juliette Binoche in "Who You Think I Am"  (Cohen Media Group)
Juliette Binoche in "Who You Think I Am" (Cohen Media Group)

Juliette Binoche's luminous face is first seen underwater in "Who You Think I Am," a fascinating character study of a 50-year-old woman who is troubled by love. The Oscar-winning actress seems to excel at playing women disappointed by men. (See her fantastic turn in "Let the Sunshine In" as the ne plus ultra of that genre). 

In this new film, Binoche's character Claire is smarting after being ghosted by her younger lover Ludo (Guillaume Gouix). This, after her husband Gilles (Charles Berling) left her for a young woman. To get back at Ludo, she poses online as Clara, a 20-something fashion intern. She does this to befriend Ludo's handsome pal Alex (François Civil). Alex falls for Clara, and Claire is invigorated by their lengthy chats. (They even have phone sex.)

"Who You Think I Am," however, wisely does not play this catfishing game as farce. Director and cowriter Safy Nebbou (adapting Camille Laurens' bestselling novel) seeks to explain why Claire behaves this way. She recounts the relationship to a new therapist, Dr. Catherine Bormans (Nicole Garcia). Moreover, Claire may be an unreliable narrator. What makes the film so engaging is how she dispenses different bits of information as the story unfolds. 

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This approach allows Binoche to play two characters, Claire and Clara, in different time frames, past and present, and the actress delivers a rich, multi-layered performance. "Who You Think I Am" offers both the pleasures of Binoche being a cougar while also playing a woman of a certain age processing her anger at men who don't see value in older women. (Claire even tries to bond with Dr. Bormans over this). What makes the film so great are moments such as when Binoche watches Alex at various rendezvous points while he looks right past her. Her gaze is captivating — sizing up the man Claire loves in non-physical ways. 

Binoche talked with Salon about making "Who You Think I Am." 

The film is, as even the title suggests, about being seen, about being looked at. Dr. Bormans even asks Claire at one point if she likes being looked at. As an actress, and a spokesmodel (for Lancome), you are often "on display." What are your thoughts about this?

I never felt I that was on display. The challenge for an actor is to start with the "within" world. What you do is connect with your being, going through the lines and connecting with other people — the actors and the director. There is a courage that an actor has to have to expose the character's story, emotions, thoughts, and feelings. But I used myself — my sensibility, experiences, and my body to convey the story I have to tell. 

Lancome was a different story. You are trying to be human, even though it is more difficult because it is a picture; it tells a different story. In a film, there is an arc, a transformation. It's a different deal; it's not an image, it's a story, and you want to reach people and their humanity. That's the game. It's a movement between you and the audience.

Likewise, Clara allows Claire to "live another life," which is something you do as an actress. Can you talk about getting into character, fleshing out the lives of the women you play?

I start with my sensibility. As in the film, she's creating a profile using a picture she's choosing that is not her. She is deciding: 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 film, it's deeper. You're not creating a profile in a film. You're using a scriptwriter's sensibility and continuing the writing into life through words, and working with other people: the director, the actors, and the whole crew. The involvement is different.

What do you think about how we construct personas online and in real life to try to show who we want others to see us as, rather than who we are? You could say we're doing that now in this very interview if you want to get meta.

I'm trying not to! [Laughs!] I'm trying to be as real as I can! We have an expression in French, "To lie as an actor, or fake, like an actor," and for me, it's always been the contrary. For me, acting is me saying the truth through the words of the writer, of who I am through this story, and the character I'm creating with the director, and the writing I have. I'm trying to be as truthful as I can with the medium I have. Just as I am talking on a telephone with you.

There is a scene in the film where Claire chats 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 film, the way it is told, is a middle-aged woman who is feeling 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's not a satisfying relationship. Until she creates this avatar [Clara] and that amuses her, and she plays with it and starts believing in it. What touched me in the film is that she realizes with her therapist, that she cannot accept being abandoned. It's difficult for her, especially since she's given so much of her life to her ex. A lot of women are in that position of being dumped because men are freaking out as they are approaching death, or unable to make love. They reinvent their life to continue this illusion. Facing this feeling of abandonment, she says, "I'm OK to die, but not be abandoned, because that's unbearable." It was interesting to go into this question about abandonment that we all have to face one day. 

Likewise, there is a freedom Claire has in being selfish. What can you say about her agency and independence? 

She cannot stand feeling abandoned. She's been abandoned by husband and then by this young man. She invents this story to survive, but it doesn't work, and she goes into deeper depression. She is not liberated yet. She was in a conventional life — married and had two kids, and was a teacher at university, and all was well. 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 that. Do you face the truth or lie to yourself so you can survive it? The more you lie to yourself, the harder it is to face. 

She's not liberated ever. She's trying to survive. It's not easy for her to go with a younger man. She's playing when she creates this avatar/Facebook identity, but it is a reaction, rather than a liberating choice. Her belief system is different. She takes off with this idea of this relationship. People [chatting] online can feel high having those kinds of exchanges. But there is no reality because it goes through a medium that is not real. 

You have worked with some of the world's greatest filmmakers. What observations do you have about the opportunities you've had in your career to deliver some indelible performances?

I live in the present time, so every time it's challenging and feels like a first film and it's difficult. It never gets easy. But I am still very passionate about what I do. It never goes away. What I love is entering into a new world and working with new people. Even when I am working with the same director, it always feels new — because it's a new character, or a new configuration with other actors. With Bruno Dumont, or making "High Life" and "Let the Sunshine In" with Claire Denis, they are very different kinds of films. I feel very lucky, and I feel [I've gained from] working a lot as well. It comes from work and praying to my good stars.  

What I enjoyed most in your performance was a scene in which Claire dances with reckless abandon at a party. She is free and happy for what probably has been the first time in a long while. (It was more captivating than the phone sex scene which expressed the same emotion, perhaps). What can you say about letting go and playing comedy, which is, as they say, harder than drama? 

I never feel that I'm choosing a film to be serious. It doesn't matter to me. It is just that maybe the story interests me more, or I love working with the director. I made "How to Be a Good Wife," which is a comedy, and I love comedies. It's is a lot of work. It's not as easy as it appears. 

"Who You Think I Am" has a storyline that sounds like a farce, but it is actually very serious. 

You try, as an actor, to give depth. Even in comedy, you try to have a grounded place so people can relate in a real and truthful way. If it's not grounded in an emotional place that is truthful, you can't laugh about yourself. It's too superficial. This film is a tragedy. How tragic is it to be dumped by a partner you have been living with for 20 years? All of a sudden you are alone! It's Greek tragedy! If I was not going to give it the depth it required, you don't believe it. 

"Who You Think I Am" opens in select theaters on Sept. 3 ,followed by a national rollout.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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