The Possibility of Humility
“A lesson in humility” That was the title of a recent article on French magazine Les Inrocks’ website which linked to the YouTube video “Mélanie Laurent is curious of everything.” The 2-minute montage of Mélanie Laurent’s best moments of humble-bragging —and not-so-humble-bragging for that matter— had me in stitches. Among other things, we learn that Mélanie Laurent finds everything in life SOOO easy, that her favorite quote from director Alain Corneau is “If Mélanie liked it, then Mélanie is right,” and that she has been killing Hitler in her dreams since she was 4 years old. No biggie.
Of course, it wasn’t long before the video went viral. To a non-French-speaking audience, the video’s hilarity might get lost in translation since the only thing Laurent really does here is talk about how successful she is —fair enough— and what really rubbed everyone the wrong way was actually Laurent’s delivery. Mélanie Laurent is a Parisian, which means she has a very distinct twang —I have it, my sister has it, almost everyone I went to high school with has it— and to the rest of France, it ain’t cute. Of course, Parisians are convinced that they don’t have an accent, because they believe that their version of French is standard, but what most of them fail to realize —as I did for years— is that people of my generation do get recognized as Parisians anywhere we go in France. And while we’d all like to think it’s due to some kind of sartorially effortless aura we give off, it’s mostly because we sound particularly pretentious [Side note: whether it bears any, some or no truth, this is an image that is widely accepted and has been addressed in numerous books, most recently Dessine-moi un parisien.] The linguist in me finds the lack of reliable sources on the perception of Parisian speech very frustrating, but I’ve lived my entire life as a Parisian, in and out of the city, around the world and back, and I’ve borne witness to many a sweeping generalization about my people. Yet 98% of the time, I’ve found those generalizations to be justified. Of course, I don’t believe that all Parisians are entitled assholes who think they’re the center of the universe but I’ll be honest: I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard people use the phrase “abroad” when they mean “outside of Paris and its suburbs” and, conversely, say “Paris” instead of “France.” Anyway, today’s topic is not whether the reputation of Parisians is legitimate but, in order to understand why Mélanie Laurent’s words set everyone’s teeth on edge, it needed to be established that the way she and other Parisian talk is found by most of the French population profoundly annoying.
So Mélanie Laurent is successful and she’s not shy about it. Good for her. The French seem to have been quite irritated with Laurent because, as she herself points out, she’s had it SOOO easy her entire life. In fact, here is how she talked about her foray into acting in a 2010 interview:
“When I was 14, I met one of the best actors in France, Gérard Depardieu, I was on the set of Asterix and Obelix as my best friend’s father was working on set and I wanted to see what it was like. I remember first thinking, damn, they have to get up at five, I don’t know if I can do this. Then Depardieu, dressed in his Obelix costume, saw me and said, ‘Hey, do you want to be in the movies?’ I said ‘Why not’, and the next week his assistant called me.”
And then, to top it all off, she was advised right away never to take acting classes. Because, you know, who cares about perfecting your craft and learning from others? Not that I believe you can’t be self-taught in a field and excel in it [Side note: take Paul Thomas Anderson, Karl Marx, David Bowie, or Frida Kahlo,] but it does sound a little conceited to make it an absolute rule. And, of course, Mélanie Laurent is not only a beautiful and talented actress but a pretty decent singer-songwriter and a director as well. I’d be more than happy for her, WEREN’T SHE SO PROMPT TO POINT IT OUT EVERY CHANCE SHE GETS.
The feeling of empathy is defined as “the ability to share someone else’s experiences or emotions.” It’s very hard to feel empathetic towards someone who is so incredibly successful, because who the fuck can relate to having never had to struggle —especially in this economy? Laurent’s defenders argue that the global reaction was imprinted in sexism and I don’t disagree. [Side note: Although I do know many men whom I feel just as negatively about. Vincent Cassel, pour ne pas le nommer.] We do scrutinize women in the movie industry more so than we do men —see: Renée Zellweger— and our criticism of male actors is nowhere near the vitriol that has been spewed about women such as Anne Hathaway or Gwyneth Paltrow —both of whom, to be perfectly honest, I really dislike. But just because our society’s bias against women played a role in the general reaction to the video doesn’t mean there isn’t something to say about the way that successful people handle their ego publicly. I will say this, though: more so than sexism, two things worked to Mélanie Laurent’s disadvantage:
a. the editing of the video
b. the tendency for people to go for blood when it comes to Parisian speech
Another thing that was said in defense of Laurent was that, when Xavier Dolan talks about his work, people universally applaud him. As a fan of Xavier Dolan’s filmography —the person, not so much— I strongly disagree. First of all, Mélanie Laurent gets just as much applaud for her work as Xavier Dolan: she has received numerous prestigious awards and is quite unanimously revered as an actress. Second of all, Xavier Dolan is just as hated by the general public as Mélanie Laurent is. Third of all, the main difference between the two is that Xavier Dolan constantly refers to other cinéastes he admires and who inspire him, and he mostly considers his success as a result of a genuine love for cinema. I do find him quite pretentious, but at least he gives credit where it is due.
I’ve never believed humility to be that Christian-inherited self-denial/false-modesty concept a lot of people associate the word with. I don’t think there is anything wrong with being proud of one’s own success and, especially as a woman, I think one should be vocal about one’s achievements. But, to me, what makes someone humble is their ability to acknowledge that, in order for them to get where they are, they’ve benefited from all sorts of privileges (whoever they are) and, most importantly, they’ve not traveled that journey alone. A lesson in humility indeed: if you’re going to be honest about your successes, you should be honest about your struggles —and lack thereof.