Stéphane Brizé’s “The Measure of a Man” begins in the middle of a conversation between a laid-off factory worker named Thierry (Vincent Lindon) and one of the many career counselors, job recruiters and loan officers who are largely powerless to help him get back on his feet. The bedraggled 51-year-old Frenchman has spent the first months of his unemployment learning how to operate a crane, only to be told that his efforts won’t be rewarded with a job. “You can’t mess with people,” Thierry growls at the lackey on the other side of the desk, but both of them know full well that he’s wrong — in the corporate world, messing with people isn’t just a possibility, it’s often a prerequisite for success.
A standout at Cannes 2015 (where Lindon deservedly won the prize for Best Actor), Brizé’s ode to the working stiff is a sobering corrective for anyone who’s ever said “it’s not personal, it’s just business.” Plumbing our economic downtown in much the same way as neo-realist classics like “Bicycle Thieves” and “Umberto D” previously excavated the ruins of post-WWII Italy, “The Measure of a Man” paints France’s recent recession as less of a financial crisis than a moral one. Brizé (“Mademoiselle Chambon”) is a humanist, not an economist, and his modest but moving new film is a welcome reminder that — for someone who can’t afford to put food on the table or provide a proper education for their child— business is always personal.
The story settles on its hero as if at random; 699 other people were let go along with him, and Brizé could just as easily have sketched a portrait about any one of them. A bedraggled everyman who wants nothing more than to provide for his family, Thierry is nothing if not a noble representative of his class. Too young to retire but too old to start over, he’s stoically resigned to the idea of working a menial job in order to put food on the table, and he manages to radiate a basic decency no matter what indignities the script hurls his way (e.g. a Skype interview so awkward that it would drive most people straight to the streets).
At times, Brizé’s belief in the purity of the working man teeters dangerously close to magical thinking: One early scene finds our hero refusing to join his former colleagues in their effort to sue for wrongful termination — he would rather just put one foot in front of the other and earn a day’s pay for a day’s labor. It doesn’t help that the scant few details we’re provided about Thierry’s personal life are calibrated to extort our compassion. It’s sweet to see him enjoy a rare moment of levity as he takes his wife to a dancing class, or to watch the two of them practice their new moves for the amusement of their disabled son, but each trial threatens to sanctify Thierry’s struggle. Fortunately, the reasoning behind Brizé’s most off-putting decisions grows clearer over time — Thierry lands a new job as a supermarket security guard, and his unspectacular goodness takes center stage as the story pivots from a social drama to a morality play.
In the meantime, Lindon’s earnest and gently captivating performance refuses to let the movie soften into a fable. A veteran French star best known to Western audiences for his decidedly darker turn in Claire Denis’ recent “Bastards,” Lindon wears his character like a pair of old shoes, approaching the generic stiff with a lived-in weariness that allows him to seamlessly blend in with a cast of non-professional actors (imagine a Gallic Kevin Costner).
Casually mimicking the vérité intimacy with which filmmakers have chosen to shoot similar blue-collar stories, Brizé’s unfussy style keeps Thierry in shallow focus while allowing the character to lead the camera wherever he chooses to go. Not only does the documentary-like aesthetic feel appropriately simple, but it also has the palpable effect of tracing the space between desperation and possibility.
So as much as “The Measure of a Man” looks like an obvious companion piece to the Dardenne brothers’ recent “Two Days, One Night,” it’s the slight differences between the two films that help illuminate the value of Brizé’s response, and reveal it to be less of an echo than it is a reverse angle. Originally released as “Le Loi du marche” (or “Market Law”), the film’s explicitly gendered translation highlights its most distinguishing factor. Both films tell similar stories of middle-class workers who have the rugged pulled from beneath their feet, but while the Dardennes followed a frantic Marion Cotillard as she hounded her colleagues for help, the mirror image provided by “The Measure of a Man” subtly helps to illuminate how sex casts an inextricable hue on our socioeconomic condition.
At one point, Thierry participates in a mock job interview for a class of people who are all looking for work, and the reviews he receives seem entirely in response to his body language and appearance: “Not dynamic,” one fellow student says. “Pensive, like he’s not really there,” offers another. So far as potential employers are concerned, Thierry’s greatest weakness is his lack of outward strength. Without suggesting that unemployment is harder on men, Brizé sensitively explores how Thierry is thrown into a violent confrontation with his own value — he isn’t just poor without a job, he’s also lost.
And then he winds up working security at a supermarket. Management runs the place like a casino, complete with a roving camera that sails over the tops of the aisles like an eye in the sky. From his bank of computers in the back room, Thierry can see every customer in the shop, but he can’t see any of them clearly; each shopper is a pixelated blur, and each pixelated blur is a potential thief. At first, busting petty criminals allows him to regain some moral footing, but the lime between right and wrong quickly begins to blur as the cases become more complex and Thierry soon finds himself standing by as an underpaid co-worker is fired for stealing the coupons she needs in order to pay for food. In exchange for a paycheck, Thierry is promoted from a victim of corporate inhumanity to an agent of its enforcement.
What happens when our responsibility to ourselves conflicts with our responsibility to each other? At what point does our responsibility to ourselves begin to interfere with and obscure our responsibility to each other? Brizé asks these questions rhetorically, posing them to us so that we might ask them of ourselves. He’s made a small film, but also one that serves as a sensitive reminder that we all depend on the kindness of strangers (and are often screwed by the lack thereof). In “The Measure of a Man,” every man is ultimately only worth the price that they’re willing to pay.
“The Measure of a Man” opens in limited release on Friday.