In Stephane Brize’s quietly devastating drama The Measure of a Man (‘La loi du marche’, 2015) French star Vincent Lindon plays 51-year-old Thierry Taugourdeau, a laid-off longtime factory worker seeking employment. Similar to the works of Ken Loach and Dardenne Brothers, The Measure of a Man is an angry movie about the plight of economically dispossessed in an indifferent labor market. However, this anger and desperation simmer beneath the narrative’s placid surface, which although is never overtly expressed could be thoroughly felt. Visually, Brize has shot his feature in Verite style, employing minimalist aesthetics and extracting restrained performances all around.

The film’s French title translates to ‘The Law of the Market’ which better reflects the contentious downturn in the French labor market. Nevertheless, the mention of gender in English title refers to the movie’s other pivotal theme: the sense of self-worth a salaried, middle-aged man gains by being a breadwinner which slowly fritters away while being unemployed. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata (2008) and Laurent Cantat’s Time Out (2001) has brilliantly scrutnized similar themes. Another important feature that serves as perfect companion piece to The Measure of a Man is Dardenne brothers’ Two Days One Night (2014). Both these movies show how a worker, irrespective of gender, in the contemporary market has to emotionally demean themselves to secure a job.

Thierry and his colleagues of similar age-group are laid-off in a round of downsizing some 20 months prior. When the film opens, a world-weary Thierry is sitting in an employment center, earnestly trying to understand why the training course he took for more than four months wouldn’t land him in a job. He’s either perceived to be too old for an entry-level job or asked for an addition qualification. All Thierry wants is to provide for his caring wife and disabled son (cerebral palsy). What’s interesting about the earlier domestic scenes is the way Brize establishes the family’s humanity and nautralistic exchanges without burdening the atmosphere with doom and gloom.

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Brize’s non-intrusive camera gracefully captures the quality family time, their cozy dinners, and the couples’ ballroom dancing lessons. We also glimpse at the everyday man’s growing frustrations: Thierry tries to sell his family mobile home to another (economically secure) couple for funding his son’s education, which ends up with a minor squabble.

Only humiliation awaits Thierry while visting employment support group and attending a Skype interview (the interviewer remarks, “I’ll be straight with you. Your chances are very slim. I’m not saying you have no chance. It’s nothing official. I’m just saying you have very little chance.”). A bank manager suggests Thierry to take out life insurance, subtly insinuating that in few years he might be worth more to his family dead than alive.

Despite all these setbacks and disappointments, Thierry manages to get hired as a security guard at a huge department store. The job only brings fresh set of complex emotional and moral issues. His job entails keeping watch (using multiple security cameras) on not only customers, but also employees, who if reported will face harsh punishment even for minor infractions. He carries on this grimly authoritative role with slumped shoulders and deflected eyes.

The Measure of a Man doesn’t have a strong or pleasing dramatic arc. Did Thierry’s son successfully pursue higher education? Did the family’s financial strain eased over time? Did Thierry kept doing the distasteful job? Why didn’t the workers protest against the management who are indirectly responsible for the demise of a conscientious worker?  There aren’t any answers. In fact, we could safely say the questions aren’t even asked in the first place. Because the common man Thierry and spate of characters occupying the screen are simply rendered to be passive observers, whose bland expressions and formal greetings is what the ‘market’ persistently demands.

Brize clearly doesn’t have the knack to subtly elevate the narrative complexity like Loach or Dardennes. But his heavy reliance on actor Vincent Lindon brilliantly pays off. Lindon shrewdly captures the emotions going inside Thierry’s head eventhough the man remains passive. Lindon by giving us the measure of his one man throws light on the countless ordinary people turned into stooges in order to turn against their own working class, preserving the inhumanistic traits of capitalism. The actor’s presence is exactly opposite to that of the ‘peformances’ of George Clooney in ‘Up in the Air’ or Aaron Eckhart in ‘Thank You for Smoking’. Those American characters make fortune through others’ agony, but there’s an in-built Hollywood-ized tendency to make them charming and likeable; ironically, Hollywood studio-features displaying neo-liberal capitalism’s ugly face eventually turns out to be ‘feel-good’ movies.

Also Read: Sorry We Missed You (2019) Review – A Soaring Farewell by A Working Class Hero

Brize’s minimalist aesthetics exquisitely captures the bruised dignity of working class people. Director Brize has actually brought in documentary cameraman Eric Dumont (his first feature film) to offer the sharp feel of real-life experience. The face-to-face exchanges in the narrative are wonderfully filmed. The usual dynamic shot-reverse-shot are replaced with long static shots, which emphasize the characters’ disconnected subjective perspective as one tries to subjugate or coerce the other. I also liked the way Brize abruptly cuts from one scene to another, maintaining the atmosphere of disquiet that promises no happy resolution.

The Measure of a Man is eventually a profound study of the degrading human relations in work spaces. The utterly destructive criticism in appraisal scenarios, the slow disintegration of solidarity, and the training of workers to perceive every conflict through the prism of economic logic are all vital points raised by the movie. Moreover, like the aforementioned movies about middle-aged unemployed family men, The Measure of a Man questions how work strictly defines a man’s personal worth. Despite a movie title that sounds lofty, the modern worker character is left to scrounge, cower, and lose his soul to ensure the safety of a minimum-wage job.


The Measure of a Man Trailer

The Measure of a Man (2015) Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes

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