The Measure of a Man (La Loi du Marche) never takes its eye off of Thierry. A machinist who was laid off almost two years ago, Thierry (Vincent Lindon) is struggling on several fronts: In his 50s, he doesn’t have the technical skills to compete in the modern job market, and he desperately needs to find work to help pay for special education for his teen son (Matthieu Schaller), who has developmental issues. This French drama’s opening scenes are a series of real-time humiliations for Thierry as he looks for a loan, has an unsuccessful interview over Skype and stumbles through dancing lessons with his loving wife (Karine De Mirbeck).
There’s nothing romantic about Thierry’s struggling, and filmmaker Stéphane Brizé (Mademoiselle Chambon) doesn’t plan on offering phony uplift to make him or us feel any better. The Measure of a Man is a defiantly straightforward, realistic film about the way your psyche gets pummeled once you no longer fit into society. Without a job, the blue-collar Thierry must feel marooned—though he never comes out and says it. He doesn’t need to: As played by Lindon, Thierry is a suffer-silently kind of man, the sort who’s into finding solutions, not sitting around talking about his feelings. Brizé and Lindon (who also starred in Mademoiselle Chambon) don’t go out of their ways to suggest Thierry is heroic or that his misery somehow ennobles him. No, his misery simply makes him miserable, and The Measure of a Man studies how such a person who’s deep into middle age copes with a sense of worthlessness and failure.
Brizé’s film recalls the stripped-down, handheld, naturalistic style of the Dardenne brothers, preferring to dramatize a series of simple moments rather than worrying about a tight plot. Which isn’t to say that The Measure of a Man meanders without purpose: Every second, we’re absorbed by Thierry’s quest to simply make do. Lindon is a master of silence, letting weary eyes and a generally haggard appearance suggest all the anxiety and frustration eating away at Thierry. The Measure of a Man stays at a respectful distance, calmly observing Thierry’s progress toward employment or selling the family’s trailer in order to bring in a little money. Finally, he does land a job as a security guard at a Walmart-like convenience store, but the film’s slow, steady pace continues. The steps along that path are incremental, with tiny victories and despairing setbacks along the way. Thierry isn’t looking for anything grand like redemption or contentment or secrets to the mysteries of life. He just wants to provide for his family.
And yet, there’s something richer and more provocative going on beneath the surface of The Measure of a Man. The English title is a giveaway about Brizé’s purpose. In its own modest way, the film is not just about how we judge a man—by his work, by his ability to provide—but also how men judge themselves using similar criteria. The exhaustion on Thierry’s face—the way Lindon looks beaten down at all times—speaks to that mental and emotional toll. It’s bad enough that Thierry is unemployed—as far as the world is concerned, he’s also failed as a man.
As a counterpoint, The Measure of a Man shows the value of empathy. Scene after scene, characters choose to be gracious or not, and Brizé’s intimate lensing puts us inside the conversations, letting us feel the aching humanity in every moment. This proves especially true when Thierry gets the job and the tables are turned. Before, he was the man who needed the kindness of strangers. But as a guard, he judges others, busting shoplifters and employees alike, taking them into a tiny room in the back for questioning. It’s a remarkable turn of events, and The Measure of a Man unearths plenty of insights about how individuals learn from their tough times, or don’t.
If all this makes The Measure of a Man sound inconsequential … well, it is—and it isn’t. Thierry’s crushing ordinariness is key to Brizé’s objective, which is to enlarge our sense of the everyday struggles around us. Sure, we have our own problems, but it doesn’t mean we should ignore the ones plaguing our neighbors. The Measure of a Man ends with Thierry facing such a dilemma, and his response is utterly in keeping with the man we’ve come to know. It’s not heroic, because he’s someone who doesn’t have time for such lofty notions. But it is inspiring.
Director: Stéphane Brizé
Writers: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce
Starring: Vincent Lindon, Karine De Mirbeck, Matthieu Schaller
Release Date: Screening in Competition at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.