Imagine this: you’re the security guard at a supermarket, tasked to unblinkingly stare at a CCTV monitor. You watch for what feels like hours, waiting for something to happen, as every instant that threatens to tip the tedium into mild interest revealing itself to be no more than a red herring. In Stéphane Brizé’s The Measure of a Man, these are scenes that not only exist, but represent the movie itself.
We feel the hum of the windowless back office; the judging glare of others in a job interview over Skype; the helplessness of an older soul in a world that doesn’t care about you.
Thierry is an out-of-work factory worker, played by Vincent Lindon (who is in turn played by a terrific moustache), and is currently navigating a France that’s unknown to him; jobs have become like sand that trickles through his hands, and Thierry is a perfect summation of the type of earnest, honest man who is likely to be shipwrecked by such financial collapse. Lindon encapsulates him beautifully with a gentleness that almost negates his outwardly imposing figure; he’s a guy for whom getting his hands literally dirty on a factory floor has been a way of life, and it’s saddening yet inspiring to watch him keep his cool during job-search group meetings where every fibre of his being – the way he walks, the way he talks, which has been of no issue for him or anyone else up until now – is torn to pieces in front of him. It’s an excellent scene where the film comes truly alive with purpose toward its themes, spliced with the kind of black humour that only the modern-day work of the Dardenne brothers could emulate. Scene to scene, the movie works – but languishing in shots which hold on even after any conflict or resolution have come and gone mean that its overall architecture is needlessly weakened.
On the positive side, in its depiction of working class France, Brizé makes sure that we feel every awkward social moment Thierry encounters, largely by framing his film around Lindon’s face – a mask of concealed humiliation underneath the dignity. We feel the hum of the windowless back office; the judging glare of others in a job interview over Skype; the helplessness of an older soul in a world that doesn’t care about you. Without Lindon, The Measure of a Man would be a grey, charisma-free suck – but even he can’t outweigh some of the longer stretches of banality. Structurally speaking, we could – and should – have started the story earlier when Lindon bags his job as supermarket security, the film playing as a near-satiric potboiler drama where the macro becomes the everyday; when Thierry corners a shoplifting old man who can’t pay for his stolen goods, the confrontation asks scintillating questions about France’s economy as a whole. Yet by relegating Thierry’s mart-misery to an awkwardly placed final half instead of as the narrative focus, such messages are lost in the same abyss he stares down when he turns to his CCTV monitor.
A few decent scenes fail to add up to a greater whole, and whether Brizé intended it or not, watching The Measure of a Man is as exciting – and important – as watching someone shop for hosiery.