Featuring an extraordinary, almost inexplicably riveting lead performance from Vincent Lindon, who earned a Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his work here, Stéphane Brizé‘s french-language “The Measure of a Man” is a terrific addition to the low-key social realist genre that is unavoidably dominated by the films of the Dardenne brothers. But while there are unmistakable parallels between ‘Measure’ and last year’s “Two Days One Night,” in the main, the links between Brizé’s film and the rest of the category are more circumstantial than DNA-based. Brizé’s approach to this kind of Dardennes-influenced “invisible” docu-realism is to use that aesthetic ingeniously, almost deceptively; the joltingly naked, handheld immediacy disguises the film’s meticulously pointed construction. And so these moments in the life of the wonderfully real Thierry (Lindon) only seem to come to us unmediated; in fact they are refracted through an ever-so-slightly heightened prism, which allows Brizé not just to document Thierry’s plight, but to comment on it, and the society that causes it, with sly, incisive humanism. It works: this is a film that makes you want to be a kinder person.
“The Measure Of A Man” unfolds as a series of verité-style encounters, apparently random but each illustrating the debilitating effect of living on the lower rungs of a society in which each new interaction is an assessment: a test you will probably fail. Thierry certainly fails many of these tests, from a job interview via Skype, to his abortive attempt to sell his holiday trailer by the sea, to meetings with bank managers and even classes in interview technique. The film opens practically mid-sentence in one such scenario as Thierry is politely but unmistakably rebuked for expecting a training course he went on to yield employment at the end. In fact, it was probably a waste of time doing the course in the first place he is offhandedly informed by the adviser, blandly unconscious or uncaring of the simple fact that, in his mid-fifties, married with a handicapped son, Thierry has little time to waste. This employment agency representative is the first in a series of middle-management-type factotums noticeably younger than Thierry, brilliantly played by non-professional actors. From their mouths the dialogue sounds so natural as to be fly-on-the-wall real, yet in each case there is at least one, and often several moments of Kafka-esque satire. Not only do they, one by one, fail to help Thierry, they also find a way to tacitly blame him for that failure.
Lindon’s performance is so perfectly judged, so inspiring of an avalanche of sympathy and empathy without ever seeking it out, that we are on Thierry’s side immediately, feeling every slight and every instance of condescension perhaps even more strongly than he does himself. Just try to prevent yourself yelling “Dickwad!” at the screen when that unseen Skype interviewer critiques the writing style of Thierry’s CV. In any other context the “friendly advice” he offers might be kindly meant, but somehow here we know it is not. So many of the pen-pushers Thierry meets have the air from the start of people whose prime concern is to find a way to feel a tiny bit better about themselves at Thierry’s expense. But Lindon also projects a fundamental decency and quiet intelligence into Thierry, never better expressed than in the film’s two dance scenes, one at a class Thierry attends with his wife, one at home with the rug rolled back as they show their delighted son what they have learned. He is in every way a good man, and we come to love him a little.
Which means it can be grueling going, watching someone you love go through these endlessly deflating rounds of test, judgment and failure. And the handheld grittiness of its style does little to ease the sometimes bruising effect of scenes that are shot crudely, with the camera roaming jerkily back and forth between Thierry and his interlocutor. In fact a great deal of the film happens in profile or quarter profile or with Thierry even having his back to us, yet our identification with him never wavers. It carries through even when Thierry gets a job as a supermarket security guard and the immediate stakes for him shift from being purely economic to emotional–to being about how much he can bear, as a good man, to be on the other side of the table, judging the transgressions of petty shoplifters and cashiers who try to pocket unused loyalty points. It culminates in an act of completely underplayed heroism, shot so anticlimactically that the swift renewed burst of love it engenders for Thierry may feel disproportionate.
The transactional, impersonal, dehumanizing effect of modern life, which is part of the film’s remit may be better reflected in its French title “La Loi du Marche” (the law of the market) but the English version does bring us closer to the human essence of what Brizé wants to show us, and does more accurately reflect the depth achieved in terms of characterization. Thierry is constantly assessed, measured, sized up by the world outside, and is constantly diminished and found wanting, yet in our eyes by the time the film ends, it is society that is proven to be coming up short and this extraordinary, ordinary man is a giant. [A-]