“The internet was okay when it was only half of our life, but today it’s 90 percent of our life,” Timur Bekmambetov told Vulture last year, early in the COVID-19 pandemic. The Russian-Kazakh director and producer was already several steps ahead of the rest of us in some ways. Over the past few years, he has produced a number of “Screenlife” movies, cinematic narratives that play out almost entirely on computer screens, such as Searching, Unfriended, and R#J. The conceit itself may sound gimmicky, but the ideas behind it are not. “When you see the character’s screen, it looks like you’re inside somebody else’s mind,” Bekmambetov said. “You see every mistake, every subconscious act, whatever. You see a lot of secrets.” This is not a new thing. Bekmambetov ultimately wants the same thing all the great cinematic expressionists wanted: to achieve total emotional and psychological transparency. But at what cost?
Bekmambetov’s latest directorial effort, Profile, feels like it could have been made at a time of social distancing, but it actually premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 2018. It’s certainly still topical on multiple levels. Profile follows Amy Whittaker (Valene Kane), a freelance reporter pursuing a story about ISIS recruitment and enslavement of female converts from the West, and her growing online relationship with Bilel (Shazad Latif), an ISIS fighter in Syria. The film begins with Amy creating her fake Facebook alter ego, a young Muslim convert named Melody Nelson. As Melody, she clicks “like” on a few Jihadist videos and images on other pages, and voilà, she begins receiving prying messages from the persistent, emoji-happy Bilel. Soon, “Melody” and Bilel are having chatty, increasingly personal Skype conversations about what prompted her conversion and his supposedly wonderful and exciting life in Syria fighting infidels.
Meanwhile, Amy gets some pointers from her colleague Lou (Amir Rahimzadeh), an IT guy who himself comes from a Muslim family, about what to say, what not to say, how to look, and how not to look. “Don’t look him in the eyes,” Lou texts her during her first conversation with Bilel, and then “Smile,” as Amy/Melody duly looks down; there’s something chilling about the gentle, promising grin on her face, making her a demure prey for the enthusiastic Bilel, whose eyes could burn a hole through both her screen and yours. Is she prey, or is she bait? Or is this (gasp) the start of true love?
These increasingly blurred lines represent the central tension in Profile, but it’s not an entirely convincing one. As the film breezes through the key points of their relationship and Amy is increasingly drawn to Bilel, her transformation is hard to buy. There’s too much left unsaid, too many emotional leaps that we don’t see. It feels like the film goes in this direction because it has to go somewhere. The picture is partly based on a book called In the Skin of a Jihadist, by the French investigative journalist Anna Erelle. I haven’t read it, but as I understand, much of the romantic subplot was added by the filmmakers.
So, as it proceeds, Profile becomes another variation on the old tale of someone who goes undercover and winds up too deep. For such stories to work, however, we really must feel the connection between the characters, and (more importantly) to dread the idea of losing that connection. That makes Profile’s formal brilliance also one of its near-fatal limitations: Just because our world is now entirely online doesn’t mean that reality is actually there, too. We see everything about Amy/Melody, yet we ultimately still have no idea what is going on in that head of hers. It’s a movie; we need more. We are not our avatars, and neither are these people.
Ironically enough, this film would probably work a lot better on a big screen than it would on a small one. (It’s being released in theaters today. I’m sure it will appear on demand soon and streaming eventually, which of course is where most people will see it, given the state of, well, everything.) In a darkened theater, Profile’s extremely online universe should achieve a certain grandeur, an unreal quality that might actually make its dodgier twists more compelling. Watching it on your TV or laptop, you may wonder why you’re taking a break from your increasingly all-digital life to watch someone else’s all-digital life? (I won’t lie. I got a screener, and found the experience of watching this particular film on a small screen extremely distracting, much more so than usual.)
Of course, one could argue that the real spectacle on offer in Profile is the entire nonstop, all-consuming ecosystem of that very digital life. As Amy switches between her real profile and her fake one, she gets text messages and Skypes and FaceTimes from her anxious editor, her friends, her boyfriend (who is out flat-hunting for their impending move together), even reminders to pay the rent. When Bilel asks her to share her screen with him, she creates a new PC user, so that she can present him with a clean screen free of any telltale pop-ups, but also so she and Lou can continue surreptitiously recording their interactions. Anyone who has had nightmares (or witnessed actual horror stories) about accidentally sharing screens, or sharing the wrong file, or having an embarrassing moment of your life broadcast on social media or a Zoom call, might feel an anxiety attack coming on during any one of Profile’s many scenes of Amy switching rapidly between profiles, opening and closing files and windows. Bekmambetov understands something about suspense, and he orchestrates these moments masterfully.
And at certain points, the director achieves something even more profound, and troubling. Melody and Bilel’s social-media interactions and Skype calls speak to the Potemkin-village intimacy of modern life: to the identities and worlds we build all around ourselves, fueled not by our own desires (as we’d like to wish) but by others’ expectations. If Profile has value, it’s not as a tale of terrorist recruitment or of amorous delusion, but of how power works in the extremely online world. (It would make an interesting double bill with the Aubrey Plaza–starring Ingrid Goes West.) Through his ever-smiling, devil-may-care charm, Bilel begins to hold sway over how Amy imagines herself. She not only winds up aspiring to belong to him, but in some ways to be him. Bilel is the guy who dismisses physical danger, who holds up pictures of executed prisoners like they were Pokémon cards, who plays soccer on a battlefield and scores at will. He’s even a better cook than she is. He’s the ultimate influencer.