There is a moment in Stephane Brize’s “The Measure of a Man” when Thierry (Vincent Lindon), a laid off factory employee is attending some sort of training session at a workforce center where he is videotaped giving a fake job interview so his performance can be graded by his classmates. It does not go swimmingly. His expression, his posture, his voice, all of it is unflatteringly dissected in excruciatingly matter of fact terms, a moment from which the perpetually understated Lindon effortlessly wrings so much pathos, taking it all personally because how can his character not? One unemployed peer reckons that Thierry’s whole nature exudes an attitude of having already given up. Maybe he has.
This is “The Measure of a Man” through and through, where seemingly every scene, filmed in long, unbroken takes so similar to those social filmmaking crusaders The Dardenne Brothers, becomes a referendum not simply on Thierry’s place in a wrecked economy, where his age and experience have somehow left him both overqualified and underqualified, but who he is as a man in choosing how he deals with it. This causes every moment to feel fraught with tension, not just real world job interviews, Kafkaesque nightmares instilled with false hope, but even moments that should exist as respites, like interludes at the dinner table where he chomps his food, breathing through his nose, where you can practically feel him about to explode.
His family is what keeps him going, and the shame he feels from struggling to support his evelopmentally disabled son Mathieu (Matthieu Schaller), thankfully portrayed as a real person rather than an ideal. The character of Katherine (Karine de Mirbeck), however, Thierry’s wife, is left wanting. Certainly she bears part of this financial trauma too, yet the narrative’s tunnel vision keeps her as nothing more than a cipher rather than an equally intimate player in this crisis.
Yet, at the same time, the film is very much about Thierry becoming isolated in his own mind on account of professional failings. In one sequence he attends a dance class with Katherine, and the instructor forces Thierry to repeatedly perform the same dance move until he gets it down, which Lindon conveys with a quietly tense self-imposed pressure, as if even here his character is attempting to offset all occupational setbacks with personal triumph. And when “The Measure of a Man” pivots and Thierry finally lands a job, his isolation merely increases.
Working as a security guard in a supermarket, he and his associates are forced to detain thieves. None of these burglars are masterminds, just elderly people on tight budgets trying to bend the law to get by. If that slants the story to dial up Thierry’s internal dilemma, so be it, and no encounter is more excruciating than the older man who, along with a pile of products he paid for, pockets a few slabs of meat. When offered the chance to call someone to come down and pay for the meat to avoid involving the authorities, the older man says he has no family and friends; he’s all alone. The camera, as it always is in these “interrogation” scenes, is at Thierry’s back, like he’s looking in the mirror.
In a way, Thierry’s role as a security guard becomes a wry twist on the stock role of Good Cop, one who stands for virtue in the face of corruption. Because while Thierry, eventually made to bust co-workers circumventing rules, is abiding by what’s right, it still comes across, to him, as morally dubious, knowing that he and those he’s ratting out are essentially standing at financial eye-level. And so when he inevitably takes a stand, it still feels impotent, heightened by the way he does it, giving up and walking away rather than passionately calling it out, suggesting that the true measure of a man is where he stands at times of challenge and controversy is a vacuous slogan best left to coffee mugs in the airport gift shop.