“The Measure of a Man”
Not rated (In French with English subtitles)
Opens Friday at Kahala 8
Midway through the quiet emotional storms in the French drama “The Measure of a Man,” the hero, Thierry, begins working as a supermarket security guard. It’s a bitter victory. There is little that’s secure about the job, which requires Thierry to view not just every customer but also each employee as a potential thief. Supplemented with the trappings of the badly paid — a stifling tie, ill-fitting jacket, squawking walkie-talkie — he embodies 21st-century labor at its most heroically alienated. As he stands and watches, liberty seems a distant promise, as do equality and fraternity.
Gently harrowing in its scary familiarity, the story picks up 20 months after Thierry (an excellent Vincent Lindon) was laid off from his longtime previous job. He’s struggling to regain his equilibrium, his place in the world, his sense of personal dignity, but it’s a tough, at times humiliating struggle. It might also be an impossible one, though not for a lack of effort on his part. The movie opens on Thierry seated in a bureaucratic drone’s cramped, anonymous office and plaintively venting about a training course that hasn’t produced the desired results. “How can I pay the bills?” he asks. “Bottom line, no job.”
As he does throughout, the director, Stephane Brize, leads with his strength: his star. Framed in profile, Lindon delivers his lines with a stubborn insistence that feels two objections away from becoming something more volatile. A dependable presence in contemporary French cinema whose recent credits include Claire Denis’ “Bastards,” Lindon has the weathered, approachable good looks of a real person (and a French movie actor). It’s a face that has miles on it, the kind that suggests there’s a story behind every crease and can also, depending on the role, register as stoic or world-weary, brooding or slightly dangerous, sometimes all at once.
Lindon’s physically reserved, inward turn as Thierry (wrinkled brow, downcast eyes) dovetails with Brize’s restrained realism. (Lindon won the best actor prize at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival for this performance.) Much of the movie consists of compact, direct scenes that add details to the larger emerging portrait while providing a tangible, lived-in sense of Thierry’s ordinary life; how, for instance, he holds on to a worklike routine, even if it means cleaning his family’s kitchen. Over time, you also learn that he has a wife and a disabled son, and that he has tired of meeting his fellow laid-off workers, some of whom are still agitating to fight their former employer.
It’s too bad that the movie’s blunt original title — “La Loi du March,” or “Market Law” — was traded in for something prettier and blander. “The Measure of a Man” suggests stirring possibilities (“Of all things the measure is man,” as the philosopher Protagoras once put it), but it doesn’t convey the ordinary cold brutality of what it means to be defined by the unpaid and the radically underpaid hour. Brize, who wrote the script with Olivier Gorce, doesn’t break ground here. Yet, with Lindon’s help and in several extraordinary scenes in the market’s back office — a white hell in which people are pushed to betray one another — Brize transforms one individual’s story into a social tragedy.
The New York Times does not provide star ratings for movie reviews.