The Measure Of A Man (La loi du marché)
France (2015) Dir. Stéphane Brizé
The idiom “Same difference” is flippant yet apposite. Take bureaucracy – every country has their own administration yet for those on the receiving end it is all the same. The latest film from Stéphane Brizé is an eye opening account of life under “the system” in France, and spoiler alert, it can’t be beaten.
51 year-old former factory worker Thierry Taugourdeau (Vincent Lindon), is struggling on the dole a year after his employer was forced to shut down. After being stuck on an endless cycle of pointless work related courses and rare, hopeless interviews, Thierry eventually gets work as security in a mega superstore but finds being on the other side of people’s misery just as soul destroying.
It is not that Thierry becomes “one of them” following his placement in a position of delegated authority then has an epiphany when his fellow co-workers are among the guilty, rather he is empathetic to some of the “criminals” and finds being party to enforcing the strictness of the rules a bitter pill to swallow.
Empathy is the main sentiment of this film, with Brizé being very smart not to persecute or traduce the system but to show it as it is. In the first half, Thierry’s encounters with the job centres for example are remarkably similar – nay almost identical – to those here in the UK, and as someone who has been through this particular treadmill, I know here of I speak.
For example, the compulsory courses job seekers are sent on to be taught how to write the perfect CV, how to behave in job interviews etc. appear to be as mundane and ineffective as there are here. Thierry also has to face the archetypal pen-pushing mutant whose entire dialogue is learned-by-rote textbook guidelines with little relevance to all situations, by which Thierry is judged anyway.
As husband to Katherine (Karine de Mirbeck) and father to disabled teenage son Mathieu (Matthieu Schaller), Thierry has to dip into his savings to pay off his mortgage. In one potent scene, Thierry and Katherine try to sell their mobile home but the prospective buyer wants to barter on the agreed price. To illustrate the desperation of his plight, Thierry digs his heels in on what is only a few hundred Euros and ends up refusing the lower offer.
Brizé deliberately paints a bleak picture, not to garner sympathy for Thierry but for anyone in the same situation. From his age and lack of practical experience being a setback to being told at the end of an interview that he has no chance getting the job anyway, Brizé could have taken the easy route and have Thierry go into emotional meltdown or worse, but that is a sadly predictable route.
Instead, the film switches perspective with Thierry now in employment to other people who face their own life struggles in their own way. Much like the audience Thierry is forced to look upon each situation dispassionately and objectively, and wonder if there isn’t some kind of moral mitigation or dispensation that could be applied to some of the cases.
After an open and shut case of a shoplifter who claimed he was threatened into stealing, an elderly man is caught with some meat he knew he could not afford. Clearly desperate despite his smart appearance and contrite demeanour, we can sense Thierry wants to turn a blind eye but knows he is bound by his professional and personal responsibilities.
It is when Thierry’s colleagues are caught out on their improprieties that the lines between understanding and judicial obligation begin to blur. One cashier is caught swiping her own loyalty card whenever a customer doesn’t have one to get the points, her defence being that she hasn’t stolen anything. Stealing, misappropriation – same difference perhaps?
What is arguably the most mordant attack on the soulless insincere mindset of corporate bureaucracy comes in the aftermath of a long serving cashier who took her own life after being fired for taking savings coupons home. An officious toad from head office goes to great lengths to repeatedly tell the staff they have nothing to feel guilty about or should blame themselves.
Brizé opts for a documentary style complete with non-professional actors to buttress the naturalistic feel, avoiding any danger of the situations and scenarios appearing contrived and unrealistic. There are many gaps of silence as Thierry observes the world around him, which is framed with him in clear focus and the background a blur; this isn’t artistic pretence, it is reminding us of Thierry’s sense of isolation.
Social dramas are not so easy to pull off, better served if the intent is to let the situations tell the story whilst keeping any didactic leanings at a distance. By avoiding the usual beginning, middle and end narrative structure Brizé achieves this, allowing any necessary exposition to be provided through congruent dialogue. There is no designated enemy just people doing their job, but the question is simply “where is the humanity?”
At just 87 minutes, the dour subject matter and occasionally fraught atmosphere may sound like a demanding viewing experience but Brizé keeps the pace brisk throughout, only holding the moment in scenes requiring the quiet drama to cut as deep as possible. The quotidian life captured is a motif for the relatable aspect Brizé wants to propagate and engender within the viewer.
With a number of roles to his credit, including tough guy and villains, Vincent Lindon is versatile enough and possesses a world-weary face that Thierry is a natural character for him. Lindon doesn’t have to say much to express Thierry’s thoughts and feelings, his subtly pleading eyes or a simple sigh relating the inward torture and conflict he is experiencing.
The original French title translates to “Market Law” and whilst we can agree that The Measure Of A Man carries more dramatic weight, the content and message of this powerful film are not lost in translation.