WHITE AS SNOW & WHO YOU THINK I AM Honor Two of French Cinema’s Finest

Huppert and Binoche continue to prove themselves as grand dames of the French film world.

Michelle Pfeiffer once commented at the Berlin Film Festival back in early 2009 that she found the parts she was being offered getting more interesting the older she got. This may be more true now than it was back when the actress made this statement, but its never been as true as it has been overseas where actresses have always managed to find riveting and involving projects which took into consideration their maturity and life experience. In France especially, certain actresses such as Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Adjani, Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Huppert have always been revered, but have found their careers thriving more and more with each passing decade. This is due squarely to the edgy directors who write parts which challenge these women as well as the culture of French cinema that is forever in love with them.

Huppert and Binoche in particular have cultivated stellar careers by never being afraid or daunted by projects, regardless of scope. Their combined list of star-making roles and career watermarks is endless. Aloise, La Ceremonie, 8 Femmes, Rendez-vous, Damage, and the Three Colors trilogy are all touchstone examples of the kind of daring and fearless places these performers will venture to. A while back, two of Huppert and Binoche’s most recent projects, White as Snow and Who You Think I Am, made their Blu-ray debuts, giving proof that each woman’s acting prowess is just as fierce as ever.

White as Snow

This modern, loose reimagining of Snow White sees Claire (Lou de Laâge), the daughter of a deceased wealthy hotelier become the subject of a plot hatched by her stepmother Maud(Isabelle Huppert) to get rid of her when it’s decided that her youth and beauty are a threat to the older woman’s existence. After managing to escape an assassination attempt, Claire finds refuge in a small village in the French countryside where she unexpectedly finds herself again amongst a collection of local men who are all taken with her. Things seem fine until Maud ends up tracking her down.

Despite the talent and the overall attempt, White As Snow is a trifle. The film seems too intent to be seen as a modern story, while also refusing to let go of the original fairy tale’s classic tropes. The result is a bad mishmash full of characters who make stupid choices before going on to make borderline reprehensible ones. With a setup like this, the stage was set for a thriller in which one generation must battle the other. But with virtually everyone sleepwalking both in front of and behind the camera, the energy and excitement quickly dwindles.

It’s Huppert who is the only saving grace here. While she’s certainly the highlight of any film she appears in, it’s totally the sole reason for giving White as Snow the time of day. Maud is a tricky role. Going too far in the wrong direction could easily make her simply a monster and less of a real woman. Huppert must understand this since she is able to maintain a hold on her character’s menacing quality while making sure we know how important her womanhood, and the way she is viewed, is to her. Her calculating turns, her presence in scenes she’s not even in and her need to finally attain the life she’s always wanted drives her to the point of destruction. It’s through Huppert’s interpretation, not White as Snow’s, that this portrait of dark female fragility remains memorable.

Who You Think I Am

In Who You Think I Am, Binoche plays Claire (no relation), a divorcee with two children who enjoys her career as a professor. Despite a life that works for her, something seems lacking. On a random night when her loneliness gets the better of her, Claire decides to make a fake profile on Facebook and soon finds herself catching the attention of the younger Alex (François Civil). It doesn’t take long an online relationship to develop that both enlivens Clare and pushes her to the edge of what she believes to be true.

Casually labeled as Catfish meets Fatal Attraction, Who You Think I Am does indeed carry plenty of twists as turns within its script to warrant a slight comparison. Yet the film isn’t so much a thriller as it is a meditation of sorts. Director Safy Nebbou has crafted a story which looks into the eternal struggle between who a person is to the outside world and who they really are in the world inside their own head. Some discussion can be had about the morality of the film’s heroine. But the actual point of Who You Think I Am lies in the universal reconciliation between the inevitability of time and ourselves.

Who You Think I Am is a deep, personal film that works. However it wouldn’t function as well as it does without Binoche. Since the film doesn’t involve conventional thrills, any and all tension and poignancy must come from the actress, which she’s more than happy to supply. Binoche plays Claire as someone who has just enough of a grip on her reality to convince herself that what she’s doing isn’t completely unhealthy and wrong. She plays her character’s feelings of liberation and ecstasy with an abandon that’s admittedly palpable. When she’s forced to face the actual truth of what she’s done, the emotional ramifications threaten her sanity in ways both her and the audience could never imagine, resulting in her own undoing. None of this would be possible were it not for Binoche’s empathetic and the magnetic way she brings Claire to life.

The output from both actresses over the last several years more than proves Pfeiffer’s words to be true. The characters both Huppert and Binoche bring to life on the screen continue to show different layers of their talents while expanding cinema’s image of the older woman. Binoche’s recent collaborations with director Olivier Assayas, (Clouds of Sils Maria and Non-Fiction) shows the actress taking on women who are wrestling with their own destinies at somewhat precarious stages of their lives. Meanwhile Huppert’s recent turns in Elle (for which she was Oscar-nominated) and Frankie shows women on a different kind of verge than what most conventional female portrayals offer. In an era where the needle still isn’t moving as quickly as it should when it comes to the viability and visibility of older actresses, Huppert and Binoche continue to defy today’s youth-obsessed culture with bodies of work which will continue to only get richer as the years go by.

White as Snow and Who You Think I Am are both available on Blu-ray and DVD from Cohen Media Group.

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