Identity Crisis

January 21, 2013

One of the supposed cultural differences between French and Americans is the manner in which strangers make small talk. I’m generalizing here, but apparently an American will end any and every introduction with “And what do you do?” while a French person wants to know who you are. The implication is that the French understand a person’s identity is more than what they do to make a living.

It’s ironic, then, that a recent French film should so effectively and movingly demonstrate the risks of allowing what you do to become who you are. What are you left with, after all, if what you do becomes impossible?

In Mia Hansen-Love’s “The father of my children“, film producer Gregoire Canvel seems devoted to his work and family, in that order. In truth, his occupation as a producer of artistic films and his role as husband and father are bound into one overarching identity. He’s attached to his phone–make that phones. He wears a nicely cut dark suit and white dress shirt everywhere, even during a weekend in the country and on vacation in Ravenna, Italy. 

You get the idea that Gregoire might go on and on like this, switching between conversations and between phones, negotiating contracts, visiting sets, buying new screenplays and reluctantly agreeing to take his family on a vacation at least once a year–preferably somewhere with cell phone reception. It isn’t that he doesn’t love his wife and three girls, it’s that his career is his calling and he can’t detach himself from it or compartmentalize it. His career is his vocation, a necessary part of who he is and the justification for his existence. So he laughs off the first signs that the debt he’s accumulated might be the downfall of his company, that the dream he’s worked to build exists on a foundation of sand and that it may soon collapse and disappear altogether.

If this were a film about a workaholic financier or weapons trader, Gregoire would be an unsympathetic character, a Scrooge who needs a bad dream or threat of serious illness to wake him up to his selfish ways and shallow life. But because Gregoire has an artistic soul, and so clearly adores his wife and takes delight in his children, his devotion to occupation seems noble rather than unhealthy. It’s a devotion that leads him to do something horrible but inevitable, given the path he’s been traveling. What he does makes it clear that it isn’t only dogged determination that’s propelling him on, it’s something else, too. “The basis of optimism,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “is sheer terror.”

I wanted to take something from Gregoire’s story, which is all the more poignant for being based on fact. If there was a lesson there, I think it might be that like any investment, you must diversify when it comes to building an identity. We put our faith and sense of self in all kinds of things; we are children and friends and wives and husbands, mothers and fathers and teachers and lawyers and designers and programmers and painters and musicians and writers and doctors and cooks and on and on. 

Yet many of those things are occupations, and not merely in the sense that we get paid for them. They are ways we fill our time and represent only a facet of the years of ideas and places and relationships we have experienced. That faith, that sense of self, is on shaky ground whenever it’s dependent upon another person, or a paid occupation, or anything uncertain and changing. This uncertainty is what is inspiring and intimidating about devoting any amount of time to something you love that isn’t guaranteed, or even likely, to meet your physical needs or material ambitions. It can never be who you are, though, not completely. You have to be more.

    

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