With a title like The Measure of a Man, French writer-director Stéphane Brizé sets up the audience to consider a summary judgement. What makes a man in the moral sense? It’s a challenging set up for a reductive conclusion. That the film works as well as it does is a combination of Brizé’s cinematic technique and a beautiful yet inconspicuous performance by Vincent Lindon, who won the best actor prize at Cannes after the film’s world premiere last year. Utilizing spare film craft, including handheld camera and minimal editing, Brizé encourages an objective perspective on the man in question, Thierry Taugourdeau (Lindon), a 51-year-old unemployed machinist and father struggling to survive on a diminishing dole while trying to support his wife and disabled son (played respectively by non-actors Karine de Mirbeck and Matthieu Schaller).
Placing Lindon against non-actors, Brizé brings out what has long been so wonderful about the French actor, known best for playing the earthy, everyman in films by Claire Denis, not to mention spectacular recent works by Brizé, A Few Hours of Spring (2012) and Mademoiselle Chambon (2009). But with The Measure of a Man, Lindon has never shown such range as a vulnerable man barricading himself with noble stoicism in the face of personal challenges. During his job search, Thierry endures a humiliating Skype interview with an unseen hiring manager who tells him frankly he’s not a strong candidate and he should consider improving the writing in his resume. Then there’s a workshop with other job seekers who take apart Thierry’s performance on camera in a staged interview scenario. “He doesn’t show that he’s there,” says someone off camera.
And that’s the strength and charm of Lindon’s performance. It reveals how mild-mannered and inconsequential this man — dumped by the marketplace of capitalistic employment — seems to be. If ever there was an antithesis to Captain America, it’s this French blue collar worker, a genuine hero of the everyday, real struggle of humanity. In fact, Brizé and co-screenwriter Olivier Gorce place him in lengthy scenes that have to build in tension with time to reveal Thierry’s warm, endearing soul beneath the gruff exterior. From arguments with fellow unemployed workers to a respite at a dance class with his wife, Lindon unfurls from a defensive stiffness to a hot-blooded, confident man with little cinematic assistance by Brizé. It’s all in his performance, from his hangdog face to his stiff elbows.
Brizé eschews extradiegetic score and close-ups, entrusting Lindon to work off the film’s non-actors, giving The Measure of a Man an exquisitely human quality that almost feels like a documentary on working class struggles in Capitalist France. In fact, the French title, La loi du marché, which translates roughly to “The law of the market,” enhances this sort of concern. The script features only two acts, Thierry as unemployed family man and Thierry as security guard at a department store. The latter half turns the first half on its head, in a way. Whereas the concern in the film’s first half is putting on a warm face to disguise faults in a desperate search of financial security, the second part of the film is a startling confrontation with deceit in the face of cheating the system in the most base way: shoplifting.
Thierry does little more than stand around in the store’s interrogation room while other more experienced store security guards grill suspected thieves. Sometimes he joins in with a sort of righteous obligation to the job, but ultimately, this half of the film relies on Lindon to project a quiet struggle merely hinted at in the film’s first half. Here, again, the film’s tension is reliant on Lindon’s subtle acting this time contrasted against shamed petty crooks who project a variety of emotions, from indignation to pathos. Fitting this subtle tonal shift, this part of the movie also features its most actively edited scenes, as seen through the store’s 80 security cameras, including one that can ominously run across a railing above the aisles, following unsuspecting patrons. It’s a canny switch in perspective to strip away humanity in this incredibly human film, which builds to a dramatic conclusion that features a cathartic act by Thierry that will instill empathetic shock waves in the audience, making The Measure of a Man one of the most low-key yet most unforgettable movies of the year.
The Measure of a Man runs 93 minutes is in French with English subtitles and is not rated (however, there’s no real offensive material). It opens in our South Florida area exclusively at Miami’s Tower Theater on Friday, May 6. It’s next opening date is in Los Angeles, May 20, at the Laemmle Royal Theatre. For screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. Kino Lorber provided all images used in this review as well as an on-line screener for the purpose of this review. This movie premiered in Florida earlier this year at Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival.