Literally translated, the title of Stephane Brize’s “Le Loi du marche” means “Market Law,” but the film is even better served by its English-language title, “The Measure of a Man,” as it contemplates just how much an ordinary working man will compromise his integrity in the name of making ends meet. A companion piece to the Dardenne brothers’ recent “Two Days, One Night” in its strong sense of labor and justice in an often unjust economy, Brize’s sixth feature film (and first to be presented in competition at Cannes) is the kind of low-key but powerfully affecting social drama that almost feels out of place in a festival that favors more attention-getting auteur fare. But Brize (“Mademoiselle Chambon”) makes compelling drama out of the most ordinary of circumstances, and draws a lead performance from frequent collaborator Vincent Lindon that is a veritable master class in understated humanism. By any “measure,” this is far from ideal date-night viewing, but critical plaudits and a high-profile Cannes launch should ensure the film greater international exposure than Brize’s earlier work.
If one were to ask what Brize’s film is “about,” the most appropriate answer might be “life” — specifically, the life of Thierry Taugourdeau (Lindon), a laid-off factory worker who has, when we first meet him, already been out of work for more than a year and is struggling to keep his family afloat on a monthly €500 unemployment check. By day, he sits through insufferable training sessions at a local job center (from which Brize mines a kind of gallows humor), where pedantic instructors drone on about how to make a good first impression when interviewing for jobs that Thierry will inevitably be deemed too old (at 51) or too over-/underqualified to get. By night, he tries to be a good husband and father to his wife, Katherine (Karine de Mirbeck), and teenage son Mathieu (Matthieu Schaller), who’s developmentally disabled but bright, self-confident and the object of no one’s pity.
Thierry is in a tight spot, albeit one — as Brize and co-screenwriter Olivier Gorce take pains to point out — shared by countless others living in the dog days of unchecked capitalism (including the 700 other workers laid off from Thierry’s factory). Nor is Thierry the hardest-luck case among them: He has some savings, though recently he’s been dipping too deeply into the account; and he’s close to paying off the mortgage on his apartment, but not quite close enough for comfort. And just on the horizon is the prospect of a special-needs college for Mathieu, and the costs it will entail. So Thierry’s life becomes a seemingly endless series of negotiations — with potential employers and bank managers and, in one long scene typical of Brize’s approach, a couple of prospective buyers interested in purchasing a mobile home Thierry has put on the market. As they haggle over the price, Brize makes us feel the life-altering weight of a few hundred Euros with a sharp and devastating force.
Brize, who has always positioned himself as a simple human storyteller in the Jean Renoir mold, has never made a film quite as overtly political as this one, or as formally rigorous, shooting mostly in long, unbroken takes (the d.p. is Eric Dumont) that force us to share in Thierry’s struggle moment by agonizing moment (like a Skype job interview full of false hope and, finally, crushing defeat). Taking a page from the Dardennes, Brize has also surrounded Lindon with an entire cast of non-professional performers playing lightly dramatized versions of themselves — a strategy that, to its great credit, will go unnoticed by most viewers, the venerable French leading man blending effortlessly into his surroundings. It helps, of course, that Lindon (who previously starred for Brize in “Mademoiselle Chambon” and the very affecting mother-son drama “A Few Hours of Spring”) excels at playing working-class everymen, and characters who, whatever else may befall them, never surrender their elemental decency.
For a while, it seems as though “The Measure of a Man” might stay focused on Thierry’s Sisyphean search for work. But then, at the film’s midpoint, the character lands a job as a detective in a Carrefour-type big-box store, and Brize’s film takes a small but carefully calculated turn from earnest social realism toward modern-day morality play. The supermarket is the ultimate crossroads — everyone, regardless of his or her station in life, must buy groceries — and Thierry now finds himself in the position of protecting the bottom line of the very sort of bosses who fired him from his previous post. More crushing to the spirit, he must now scour the store’s elaborate closed-circuit video system looking for potential shoplifters, and then shake them down until they either pay up or fess up. (Cinephiles with a reasonably long memory will recall that Lindon gave one of his early notable performances in Claude Sautet’s 1988 “A Few Days With Me,” another movie in which a chain of supermarkets was central to the narrative.)
It’s here that Brize stages the film’s most remarkable scenes, each infused with a slow-burn tension: An elderly man steals meat, but when caught, doesn’t have the money to pay, or any money at home, or any relatives/friends he can call for help; a cashier is caught hording discount coupons for her own personal use; another scans her own “loyalty card” to accrue points from other customers’ purchases. And in each of the confrontations that ensue, we feel Thierry’s private agony, knowing that, but for a few twists of fate, the shoe might easily be on the other foot.
Lindon is simply heartbreaking to watch, whether playing the aggressor himself or standing silently by while his colleagues handle the interrogating, the heavy folds in his brow like rings in a mighty redwood. On one level, Brize’s film asks us to consider how we would react in a similar situation. On another, it asks us to believe that there are still those among us who will do the right thing at potentially perilous cost to themselves, because they represent the best we can hope to be. “The Measure of a Man” gives us one such 21st-century Tom Joad navigating a post-industrial Dust Bowl — a superhero whose only special power is his towering grace.