‘The Measure of a Man’ (‘La Loi du marche’): Cannes Review

Vincent Lindon gives a powerful lead performance as an unemployed father trying to make ends meet

Stephane Brize (“Mademoiselle Chambon”) plays Cannes competition for the first time

Teaming up once again for a film that leaves many things unsaid while saying a whole lot, director Stephane Brize and star Vincent Lindon offer up an impressive foray into social drama with the working-class chronicle, The Measure of a Man (La Loi du marche).

Teaming up once again for a film that leaves many things unsaid while saying a whole lot, director Stephane Brize and star Vincent Lindon offer up an impressive foray into social drama with the working-class chronicle, The Measure of a Man (La Loi du marche). Highlighted by an all-consuming lead performance from Lindon – surrounded here by an excellent cast of non-pros – this third collaboration strays further into Dardennes Bros. territory than previous efforts, although its depiction of an Average Joe scraping by in contemporary France features its own unique voice.

Released locally after a competition bid at the Cannes Film Festival, Man is modest in scope but effective in execution, even if its ending can feel both circumspect and a tad predictable. Yet the film’s gripping portrait of current social-economic woes should speak directly to French audiences, while overseas action could equal or surpass that of 2009’s Mademoiselle Chambon, which grossed over $500K for its U.S. release.

A jolt of an opening throws us into the action, as we watch 50-something factory worker, Thierry (Lindon), digest the Kafkasesque explanations of an unemployment officer (Yves Ory) trying to land him a job. With DP Eric Dumont focusing his handheld camera on Thierry’s contained rage – Lindon’s eyes look like they’ll pop out of his head at any moment – the filmmakers employ a casually immersive technique repeated throughout the movie, placing their hero in situations that constantly test his endurance, in a world that no longer has any use for solid blue collar types like himself.

The script (by Brize and Olivier Gorce, Omar Killed Me) cuts back and forth between Thierry’s efforts to find work and his rather serene home life, although one in which he and his wife (Karine de Mirbeck) need to provide constant care for a mentally handicapped son (Matthieu Schaller). But the tenderness his family offers is only enough to help Thierry tolerate a series of humiliating job interviews, including a rather mesmerizing one done over Skype where he suffers through the passive-agressive criticisms of an unseen recruiter (played by producer Christophe Rossignon).

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Lindon has portrayed these kinds of tough, stoical men in the past, both in Brize’s films and others, including Claire DenisBastards and Philippe Lioret’s Welcome. He’s an actor who can do more with a glance than with several pages of dialogue, and his hardened physique gives him an intensity filled with deep sadness – as if Sylvester Stallone had suddenly wandered into a docudrama for public television.

Indeed, as Thierry takes in even more bad news – especially during a fated attempt to sell his mobile vacation home, in a scene that starts out hopeful and only goes down from there – you just want him to sock it to everyone he’s dealing with. But the power of the film is that he can’t, holding himself back to do the right thing and pay the bills.

A narrative ellipsis reveals Thierry working later as a supermarket security guard, allowing Brize to insert some levity into what’s been a particularly grim scenario. There’s a scene at once troubling and strangely funny made up entirely of CCTV footage, including a lengthy tracking shot across the store’s main aisle. Yet even those brief moments of respite soon give way to bitter reality: in order to survive at the new job, Thierry now needs to humiliate others, and Brize clearly seems to be saying that “market law” (per the French title) is the only one that ultimately counts.

While the filmmaker’s vision of France is far from glamorous, it’s not without warmth, especially during those moments where Thierry enjoys the comforts of the home he so desperately tries to keep. A standout sequence has him and his wife taking dance lessons with a teacher (Noel Mairot) who winds up cutting in between them, the camera lingering on Lindon’s deadpan expression in a welcome bit of comedy.

Like the Dardennes, Brize mines such fleeting instants of joy in an atmosphere of post-industrial gloom, revealing people seeking their own small slice of happiness. The idea of casting non-professionals alongside Lindon makes this approach feel all the more authentic, and the various characters he encounters seem to be marked by the same struggle as Thierry, playing individuals fraught with worry and confusion.

In that sense, there are times when The Measure of a Man can feel slightly didactic, and while the scenes themselves are fully embodied and often surprising, they don’t build to a strong conclusion in strictly dramatic terms. It’s as if the film’s politics trumped its storytelling; although at the same time, Brize has been clear from the first scene what the message is. There’s only so much a man can take. 

Production companies: Nord-Ouest Films, Arte France Cinema
Cast: Vincent Lindon, Karine de Mirbeck, Matthieu Schaller, Francoise Anselmi
Director: Stephane Brize
Screenwriters: Stephane Brize, Olivier Gorce
Producers: Christophe Rossignon, Philip Boeffard
Executive producer: Eve Francois Machuel
Director of photography: Eric Dumont
Production designer: Valerie Saradjian
Costume designers: Anne Dunsford, Diane Dussaud
Editor: Anne Klotz
Casting director: Coralie Amedeo
International sales: MK2

No rating, 93 minutes