Film of the week: The Measure of a Man

Mal travail: the great Vincent Lindon at his most hangdog bears the degradations of life as a capitalist cog in his third collaboration with France’s flourishing social realist Stéphane Brizé.

from our forthcoming July 2016 issue

The Measure of a Man (La Loi du Marche, 2015)

The French title of this film, which means ‘the law of the market’, conveys more accurately than the English The Measure of a Man the political project at its heart – to show the extraordinary symbolic violence to which ordinary workers are exposed in today’s globalised capitalist economy.

We follow middle-aged Thierry (Vincent Lindon) as he struggles with the economic hardship and multiple indignities that come with being unemployed: the futile training schemes, the glacial Skype interviews, the brutal demolition of his self-presentation technique by his fellow unemployed, the embarrassing meetings with the bank manager, the haggling over a few hundred euros when trying to sell his seaside mobile home. Then when, after 15 months, he does get a job, as a security guard in a hypermarket, he finds that this consists of humiliating impoverished customers and his own colleagues for committing trivial offences, leading him to leave in disgust. The most damning political comment in the film comes early on, when Thierry rejects his former fellow trade unionists, arguing that he is ‘tired’, and that their project to take the company to court will achieve nothing. Perhaps, but unfortunately nor will his own individual protest at the end of the film.

The Measure of a Man (La Loi du Marche, 2015)

Over three features starring Lindon (this one and Mademoiselle Chambon, 2009, and A Few Hours of Spring, 2012), director Stéphane Brizé has become a champion of ordinary people confronted with the mundane and yet tragic problems of everyday life – a happy couple breaking up, a terminally ill mother opting for assisted suicide, unemployment. In the new film, Brizé further develops his semi-documentary technique to explore the world of work. Long sequences are juxtaposed, without an introduction. We are plunged straight into the action, which then unfolds in long takes, the camera often handheld, on location and with virtually no professional actor except for Lindon.

This search for a ‘reality effect’ is most successful in the work sequences in the second half of the film. The scenes at the bank, and especially in the hypermarket, include many members of staff more or less playing themselves – from the white male executive and the female security agent to the black woman working at the till. Brizé has cleverly cast people with an extraordinary confidence in front of the camera, which means that Lindon’s customary minimalist yet charismatic performance style blends wonderfully with the rest of the cast. In this respect alone, his awards for best actor (at Cannes in 2015 and at the Césars earlier this year) are well deserved. The Measure of a Man is very much a Lindon festival, as he is on screen virtually throughout the film, either centrally or as a discreet yet intense presence on the edges of the frame – for example, in the scenes confronting customers or colleagues arrested for stealing.

The Measure of a Man (La Loi du Marche, 2015)

More awkward are the scenes at Thierry’s home, with his wife Karine (Karine de Mirbeck) and disabled adolescent son Matthieu (Matthieu Schaller). The point of these scenes, and of those where the couple take rock ’n’ roll dancing classes, is clearly to signify Thierry’s happy home life and decent, honest quality as a human being. De Mirbeck and Schaller are excellent; the uneasiness comes from scripting choices. The inclusion of a disabled son on top of Thierry’s other problems seems to tip the balance towards melodrama.

More problematic is the fact that Karine is virtually silent throughout the film. She barely has a name (we hear it once when they are trying to sell their seaside mobile home) and we have no sense of her life – we don’t know, for instance, whether she has a job or not: the film treat employment as a male issue. And since, somewhat implausibly, caring for Matthieu (including bathing him and cooking) appears to be Thierry’s job rather than Karine’s, she is marginalised even further.

The Measure of a Man (La Loi du Marche, 2015)

The awards Lindon has won for Measure of a Man – along with the Palme d’Or given to Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan at the same 2015 Cannes festival – illustrate a desire on the part of the industry to encourage a more socially conscious French auteur cinema. They also confirm the actor’s trajectory from romantic-comedy co-star –in films such as L’Etudiante (1988), La Crise (1992), Belle maman (1999) and Chaos (2001) – to more intense dramatic roles, the turning point being Claire Denis’s Friday Night (2002); the strategy was successfully pursued in the Brizé trilogy and the 2015 version of The Diary of a Chambermaid.

In 1989, Lindon was awarded the Prix Jean Gabin as a promising young actor. Now he seems to be following in the footsteps of the great 1930s star, who was likewise famous for his charismatic, silent presence and ability to embody tragic working-class figures.

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