Film Review: The Measure of a Man

In Stéphane Brizé’s sublimely affecting humanist drama, Vincent Lindon delivers a finely calibrated performance as a recently unemployed blue-collar family man shuffling responsibilities and navigating hardship in contemporary depression-stricken France.
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Stéphane Brizé’s quietly heartrending humanist drama The Measure of a Man cuts right to the chase in its intentions to reveal the swelling hardships of the working class. The film opens with a slyly taut scene where Thierry Taugourdeau—played by renowned French actor Vincent Lindon with a simmering, wounding subtlety—faces the man. Thierry is a recently unemployed blue-collar worker in France (laid off from his job alongside countless other employees), and the man is an unemployment officer, predictably unable to help him. Thierry civilly but firmly gets his points across; that he took their advice in spending several months of his unemployment learning a new skill, which in the end proved to be completely useless, wasting his precious time. He doesn’t hide his desperation, but shows his sense of pride at equal measure. He rightfully doesn’t want to be messed with.

The Measure of a Man’s aptly crafted vérité style and minimalist aesthetics (seen in its opening) effortlessly stretch over the entire film, co-written by Brizé and Olivier Gorce. In a restrained performance that conceals an immense range of dramatic span, Lindon—the deserving winner of the Best Actor award at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival—puts various facets of Thierry’s life on display. After introducing him as an unemployed everyday man frustrated by an unjust and inefficient bureaucracy, Brizé and Gorce’s script familiarizes us with other key elements of his personality in a variety of dexterously written and played sequences. We learn that he is a decent family man, happily married and raising a disabled son. In patiently built, naturalistic scenes, Eric Dumont’s camera keeps an observant, non-intrusive eye on the Taugourdeaus, capturing cozy family meals and affectionate quality time. We even get a taste of a lovely ritual the couple savors through tough times. Not neglecting romance or their humanity during economic struggles, they find an oasis in ballroom dancing lessons they later recite to their son. We watch them become one body as they try to sell a family mobile home to another (undoubtedly more fortunate) couple and secure funding for their son’s education.

In two equally effective scenes, we sense the gradual erosion of Thierry’s faith as circumstances continually put his patience to the test. In an employment support group where he role-plays in fictional job interviews, he receives annoyingly nitpicky (and altogether fabricated) comments from others on his body language and demeanor. During a soulless, impersonal Skype interview, conducted by a potential employer unimpressed with his outdated technical skills on a particular machine, he receives futile feedback on the state of his résumé. For an aging man who’s always done it one way, things don’t seem to be looking up.

Once Thierry finally gets a job as a security guard at a department store, the film becomes a larger-scale societal commentary, as opposed to the character study with a social backdrop it’s thus far been. Capturing a series of minor crimes committed both by customers and employees—one as trivial as illicitly collecting employee discount points through customer purchases—Brizé opens up his lens to include people who have little other choice than to cheat or manipulate the system.

With its heartbreaking  social realism, The Measure of a Man brings the Dardenne Brothers’ 2014 film Two Days, One Night, in which a soon-to-be unemployed woman (Marian Cotillard) knocks on her co-workers’ doors over the course of a weekend in a desperate attempt to save her job, to mind. Yet where Two Days, One Night highlighted the power of humans to band together against capitalism, The Measure of a Man focuses on its victims’ loneliness and isolation. At one point, my mind even wandered off to a fairly recent Hollywood-ized takedown of capitalism’s ugly face. Parts of the syrupy (but fairly good) Up in the Air is perhaps the closest we can get to facing a similarly heavy subject in Hollywood, following around a movie star in the role of a lonely man making his fortune through others’ agony. In the end, I wondered if Thierry’s new position as a guard was all that different from Ryan Bingham’s (George Clooney). He certainly would not be making a fortune or racking up miles, but he’d still be forced to put food on the table by adding to the suffering of already helpless people. Brizé’s achievement is exquisitely capturing that lingering pain, sure to steadily bruise the spirit of a man of dignified principles.

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