Last year in Cannes, it was Marion Cotillard and the Dardennes brothers examining contemporary workplace relations in Two Days, One Night. That razor sharp, but repetitive critique of the ills of modern corporate practices is bested this year by The Measure of a Man which finds its unemployed protagonist facing a moral dilemma when he finds a new job working in shop security.
We meet 51 year old Thierry mid conversation at the job centre, frustrated by the pointless course he has recently wasted his time completing in order to find that there are no jobs waiting for him at the end of it. Along with his wife, Thierry has a disabled son who he wants to put through further education. Money is tight, and after meeting with his bank manager, Thierry grows increasingly desperate to find employment. After rejections, humiliation and disappointment, he finds work in surveillance and security at a supermarket. But when required to spy on his fellow workers, Thierry may be pushed to act in opposition to his morals.
Everything you need to know about The Measure of a Man is written on actor Vincent Lindon’s face. Stephane Brize rarely lets the camera leave his weathered face. It’s not an overly demanding performance in terms of histrionics, but the hooded eyes and lined forehead of Lindon’s face reveal a wholly convincing character worn down by the ordinary stresses of modern working class life. Thierry is reactive, a man beaten into submission by past experience, with little fight left in him. He admits to his former colleagues early on in the film that he cannot continue with a lawsuit against their previous employers due to his fragile mental state, and the fear of what losing will mean to him.
As Thierry sits opposite his employment officer, bank manager, or a faceless prospective employer who conducts an interview with Thierry by Skype, Brize makes it clear that he is little interested in these other characters that advance the story. In long, static takes, rarely including Thierry and another character in the same frame, Brize observes his protagonist as he takes the series of blows and knockbacks that have become his spirit-crushing life. One scene is so full of pathos, it is hard to know whether to laugh or cry as Thierry is grilled by his fellow job seekers. Filmed for a fake job interview and having his body language analysed by those around him, it is a humiliating lesson for Thierry to sit through.
There is also the constant whiff of bullshit wafting around Thierry as he sits and listens to others speak. Ordinary people turn on each other at the drop of a hat and Thierry often sits passively sucking it up. When human resources get involved after a tragedy at his new workplace, the level of cynical, disgraceful spiel that is doled out is reprehensible. Thierry finds himself as an enforcer of depressing behaviour by his employers, and struggles with the moral consequences.
With almost no music throughout, Brize’s realist take extends to the cinematography and production design. Large sequences of The Measure of Man take place in the bland offices of ordinary people, populated by characters played by non-professional actors. Trapped in this bleak environment, there is no relief from the stale situations of Thierry’s life. Even his holiday mobile home, possibly once a source of great joy, is now run down and only glimpsed in one scene where he is being forced to sell it.
If it sounds unsparingly grim, that isn’t the whole story. Thierry emerges as admirably resilient and his family life is far from the grim domestic misery of some similarly themed films. There is hope here, but for many viewers it may be too little, too late.
About the Author
Peter Turner Senior Reporter & Critic for Tastic Film Magazine.