The Measure of a Man, a third collaboration between French director Stéphane Brizé and veteran actor Vincent Lindon in just six years, is a pared-down social critique that charts the day-to-day drudgery of a man suffering the slings and arrows of economic recession. It’s far from a joyous viewing experience but fans of the Dardennes and Ken Loach will appreciate a bitterly honest slice of life. Painfully long takes, improvised dialogue, a dull colour palette and cast constituted principally of non-professional actors lend Brizé’s latest a documentary-style realism that accentuates a personal struggle altogether too familiar for many.
Lindon, an ever-present and ever-weathered face of French cinema, took home the Best Actor awards at both Cannes and the Césars for his naturalistic performance as downtrodden, beleaguered family man Thierry. The actor’s drooping eyes and hangdog expression suit a strictly principled character whose situation is already desperate as we join his plight, fifteen months into unemployment. With no establishing shot, Brizé opens The Measure of a Man in a job centre. Thierry, exasperated from being shuffled from pillar to post by ineffectual paper-pushers – this is France, remember: bureaucracy est roi – is informed that a forklift course recently completed is useless without any shop floor experience. Back to square one. From start to finish the overriding mood of infuriating helplessness and wasted time is punctuated only intermittently with the slightest glimpses of hope.
With both director and leading man admirably keeping a lid on pots of boiling frustration, one of the film’s real strengths is understatement and restraint when exhibitions of fury are justified. There’s no grand- standing here, no big existential shouty scenes of how unfair it all is, serving to amplify the simmering injustice. Fury is impractical when you have a wife (Karine de Mirbeck) and mentally handicapped son (Matthieu Schaller) to care for. Though Lindon is well deserving of the acclaim he received – from the Coen brothers, no less – in light of a tremendous performance, Brizé allocates scant time to the other members of an apparently close-knit family, for whom Thierry swallows pride and insults. Whether his wife (whose first name is never uttered) even has an occupation is left unsaid. Matthieu, possessed of a terrific sense of humour and determination to further his studies, is the reason for husband and wife to plough on against the tide, and yet even he is subjected to a grilling from an unsatisfied teacher.
Pressure and injustice reach in all directions but a greater characterisation would have made this a more well-rounded feature. There is nonetheless a tenderness to scenes of domestic bliss but the intrusion of Eric Dumont’s camera throughout achieves a duality of both intimacy and claustrophobic pressure and restriction which works very well in all spaces. Employed but finding himself increasingly ensnared in the uncaring, stringent corporate machine, Thierry has a choice to make as Brizé’s shunters towards a dénouement of sorts. The Measure of a Man is a sobering, quietly defiant and affirmative piece of realist filmmaking that captures a bleak snapshot of the times in which we live.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens