With a luminous on-screen presence and an ability to elevate even the most mediocre material into something watchable, Juliette Binoche has established herself as one of the very best in the business, having accumulated an exhaustive list of achievements and award nominations, including an Academy Award win for her performance in The English Patient some 20+years ago. Since then, Binoche has continued to deliver outstanding performances that have garnered no less than 10 Best Actress nominations at the Cesar Awards – the French equivalent of the Oscars – and a multitude of accolades across three continents. Never reluctant to take on characters who are vulnerable and/or damaged in some way, Binoche is perfectly cast as Claire, a 50-year-old divorcee who quickly finds herself mired in a miasma of misrepresentation when she instigates an online connection with a complete stranger.
Bristling with resentment about the fact that her ex-husband has found himself a new girlfriend, Claire finds herself in a relationship with Ludo (Guillaume Gouix), a man who has no interest in anything beyond the most casual of arrangements. Determined to find out more about the other people (women) in his orbit, Claire establishes a phony Facebook persona in a bid to sidle her way into the life he has beyond their trysts. Whilst Ludo refuses to take the bait, his friend Alex (François Civil) begins communicating with Claire and the two quickly find themselves becoming emotionally invested in the relationship despite the fact they have never met. The problem lies in the fact that Claire has used appropriated images to sell herself as (a much younger) somebody else altogether and, as their friendship blossoms, she finds herself unable to reveal the truth. A university professor in the real world, Claire’s virtual persona is Clara, a fashion industry intern, and it is somewhat despairing that she believes the latter identity is a more appealing package.
The terrain of social media is one which almost demands dishonesty and documentary productions such as Catfish have explored the experience of being conned by a constructed character. However this film, directed by Safy Nebbou, is a “catfishing” narrative told from the catfish’s own point-of-view and offers insight into the motives and mindset of someone who, for whatever reason, believes they are no longer worthy of attention. Despite being an intelligent, successful woman, Claire still derives some of her self-esteem from the admiration of men, at one point telling her therapist (Nicole Garcia) – who remains amusingly impassive throughout the various sessions that serve as the framing device for the narrative – that being desired is “a pleasure I never want to give up.” Of course, you would have to suspend disbelief to think that Claire (or Binoche for that matter) would ever find themselves in such a position. Despite the fact that the relationship is based on lies, the emotional connection between Claire and Alex becomes devastatingly real on both sides.
Adapted from a novel by Camille Laurens, the screenplay from Nebbou and Julie Peyr strikes a delicate balance in its construction of a character who is both eminently relatable and pathologically self-destructive. We should be thankful that European sensibilities with regard to women of a certain age do not mirror those of Hollywood or the opportunities to see the likes of Binoche (or compatriots such as Isabelle Huppert and Catherine Deneuve) on screen would be very limited indeed, which would be a significant loss given that Binoche delivers a performance of genuine anguish here as Claire slowly unravels, entangled in a web of her own deceit. Whilst the fact that the story is being recounted in therapy sessions should alert viewers not to take everything at face value, Nebbou has painted a poignant portrait of an anguished, complex woman who succumbs to the perils of modern communication in her quest for human connection.