Brizé’s film is a humanist portrait of a man struggling to make ends meet
By Zeke Trautenberg
The climax of Stéphane Brizé’s film The Measure of a Man comes in the final third. The film’s protagonist, Thierry (Vincent Lindon), dressed in his security guard black suit and tie, stands uneasily a harshly lit bare room with three of his fellow supermarket employees. Thierry’s creased brow, drooping moustache, soft-spoken baritone voice, and hunched shoulders reveal his own moral distaste for his job. Next to Terry stand the store manager and another security guard. The three are interrogating a cashier from the store, whom the manager accuses of hoarding customers’ discount coupons. As Thierry and the viewer know, this backroom j’acusse is motivated by more banal and far-reaching economic motives than mere theft. The store’s management is looking to cut back on staff and reduce its pension liabilities by finding reasons to fire employees. Thierry and his fellow security guards play a key role in this scheme, spying on their fellow employees with the aim of uncovering fireable offenses.
The camera captures Thierry’s sense of anxiety and moral turpitude as it pans in shallow focus between Thierry, the manager, and the other security guard. The cashier, in the background, is out of focus and disoriented, as the weight of the charges swirl around the room. At first the cashier, a long time employee, denies her guilt, but finally she admits that she did save the coupons. She offers to forgo her bonus in order to keep her job. However, the manager is unforgiving and claims that he has no more trust in her. The camera cuts away before we see her being fired, but the viewer can infer the outcome of this jarring backroom trial.
We arrive at this scene after following Thierry through his struggles to find a job after a long period of unemployment. Thierry worked as machinist, but his skills are outdated in the highly-segmented and unequal economy of early-twenty-first century France. Thierry and his family try to make ends meet in an economic environment where austerity politics and downward mobility are the order of the day. The film is a potent allegory of how the exigencies of a globalized market and economy and government austerity policies have diminished the legacy of the postwar French welfare state. The unemployed Thierry is on the front lines of a difficult economic environment and a changing Europe. He has to grapple with an unresponsive government and rigid labor laws that harm both employers and employees. The trappings of the middle class—a car, a mobile vacation home, and a comfortable apartment— are now luxuries for Thierry and his family.
The Measure of a Man is part of a tradition of humanist filmmaking in France that stretches from Jean Renoir to Claude Sautet to Claire Denis. Like these filmmakers, Brizé shows great compassion for the workers and the struggles of everyday families. And like Renoir in The Rules of the Game, Lindon, who won the award for Best Actor at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival for his role in the film, fashions a character of immense moral depth.
Brize’s film is economic in its cinematography and mise en scène. The handheld camera work by cinematographer Eric Dumont captures the complex character of Thierry and underscores the film’s psychological intensity. The staging of the action is claustrophobic and interiors are starkly lit. Structurally, the film has much in common with the irregular pacing and experimental montage in Denis’ Nenette and Boni (1996). As in Denis’ film, we enter sequences in medias res without a clear sense of how much time has passed between one segment and the next. Another work that closely parallels the film’s tone and plot is Kafka’s The Trial (1925). Like Josef K., Thierry undergoes a series of trials in his search for employment. He faces a government official, a banker, a group of his peers tasked with evaluating his interviewing skills, and a Humans Relations expert, who gives one of the least inspiring eulogies in movie history. Notwithstanding these trials, Thierry’s life still holds room for joy. Although his face remains inscrutable, when he dances with his wife and bathes his disabled son, we sense that Thierry, however briefly, is at peace.
Director: Stéphane Brizé
Running Time: 93 minutes
Photos: Nord-Ouest Productions/Arte France Cinéma