Calmly looking into its plain working class hero’s quiet economic struggle, French social drama film “The Measure of a Man” shares his desperation and frustration with us during the first half and then throws some hard moral questions during the second half. Can he live with the price he must pay for maintaining a hard-earned status he cannot easily give up? And what can he really do in front of the harsh capitalistic reality which corners not only him but also many others around him?
Thierry Taugourdeau (Vincent Lindon) is a middle-aged man who has been unemployed for around two years since he lost his old factory job. Fortunately, he and his family are not in the worst situation at least because they have so far depended on their savings and his monthly unemployment check, but time and money are running out for them, and he really has to grab any possible job opportunity as soon as possible.
But getting a job is not easy at all for people like him. During the opening scene, we watch the conversation between Thierry and an employment agency counsellor, and the growing exasperation inside Thierry becomes more palpable as he patiently tries to make his points on how useless a training session he and others recently took turns out to be. Sure, its well-meaning purport is giving them a new job opportunity, but they still cannot get employed mainly due to their age and insufficient experience. After all, who will possibly be interested in them when there are many others looking more suitable in the labor market? “Le Loi du marche”, the original French title of the movie, means “The Law of the Market” in English, and that hurtfully reflects our hero’s currently downgraded labor value as much as the English title itself.
As Thierry keeps looking for any chance of employment, we see more of how difficult the situation is for him and his family. He feels happy and comfortable whenever he is with his loving wife and their disabled son, but they may have to sell their apartment someday if that is necessary for sustaining their current situation. In addition, their son, a bright teenager boy whose spirit is not hindered by his disability at all, wants to go to a better school for his academic aspiration, and that means there will be another financial burden for his parents.
There is an increasingly tense scene among Thierry, his wife, and a couple who want to buy their old mobile home. When they come to haggle over its price, it initially looks like a simple matter of cutting several hundred euro off the originally offered price, but we come to sense that every euro is really important for Thierry and his wife. They may be disadvantaged in front of their potential buyers, but they adamantly sticks to their original price because they cannot afford to stand back.
Maintaining its calm, non-judgmental viewpoint on Thierry’s ongoing plight, the movie sometimes shows a dry sense of wry humor. His job interview scene via Skype is painfully awkward as it becomes quite clear to him and us that his unseen interviewer does not want him although the guy never tells that directly to him. During one of Thierry’s usual training sessions, others in the session point out a number of reasons why Thierry does not look so good during his mock video interview, and he has to endure their critical comments one by one. As the cinematographer Éric Dumont’s handheld camera firmly and tightly focuses on Thierry’s phlegmatic façade in its medium shot, Vincent Lindon, who won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival early in last year (the movie also won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the festival), is superb in his understated performance, and it is compelling to watch how he subtly conveys to us his character’s quiet humiliation while never signifying too much to us.
Anyway, that painful moment seems to give Thierry a lesson to be learned, for we soon see him being employed as a security guard at a local branch of some big supermarket chain. While occasionally watching around this wide place, he also learns how to operate many CCTV cameras placed here and there around the ceiling, and we get an interesting scene which shows how this place is being monitored at each second through those cameras. Some of them can actually be moved along their tracks while not noticed by anyone below, and we also hear about how certain customers can be spotted as potential shoplifters.
Of course, his new job turns out to be not as easy as it looks at first, and his following moral dilemma reminds me of the similar one in Ramin Bahrani’s “99 Homes” (2014). Like the young struggling working class hero of that movie, Thierry frequently finds himself on the position opposite to people who are not very different from him, and he has to be as harsh as demanded no matter how much he feels sorry for them. His respective scenes with these desperate people feel stark and uncomfortable as the camera coldly watches on the routine procedure of him and other security guards, and we cannot help but feel chilled and disgusted when the head of the human resources department later gives Thierry and other employees a banal affirmation on how they have nothing to do with a tragic incident involved with one recently fired employee.
Reminiscent of the Dardenne brothers’ films including “Two Days, One Night” (2014), “The Measure of a Man” admirably sticks to its austere realistic approach to the very end. I have some reservation on whether its finale is as effective as the director/co-writer Stéphane Brizé intended, but Brizé did a commendable job of serving us with a slice of hard working class life, and I appreciated how Lindon is flawlessly mixed with the non-professional performers surrounding him on the screen. This veteran actor is not widely known outside his country (I only came to recognize him through Philippe Lioret’s “Welcome” (2009)), but you will not easily forget his presence as well as his ordinary but unforgettable human hero once the movie is over.