Film

Stéphane Brizé’s ‘The Measure of a Man’ Is an Urgent Study of Economic Powerlessness

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The movies promise that, in a crisis, there’s action you can take. It might not work out, especially if the film’s European or a true indie, but there are choices to make, selves to actualize, scenes to motivate: Everyone’s got to do something.

Stéphane Brizé’s The Measure of a Man, a feat of workplace naturalism, can’t give its protagonist that much. Out of work in the downturn, Vincent Lindon’s willfully impassive mechanic Thierry slumps along from one humiliation to another, bereft of what the kids in creative-writing classes call “agency.” In a go-nowhere job interview, in consultation with a career adviser, in a bureaucratic world of drab white walls and buzzing fluorescent lights, he can’t even find hopeless actions to take.

Between the upsets — each met with the stoic indifference a bulwark exhibits to the tides — Thierry seizes control of the few things he can. Movingly, he throws himself into cleaning the cabinets of the home whose mortgage is breaking him, and he’s a game stiff when taking dance lessons with the wife (Karine de Mirbeck). In technique, that scene is typical of Brizé’s patient, observational film: a long take in a blandly everyday interior, the camera gently bobbing, the performances stripped of artifice. But it’s also joyous, a respite and a reminder that public powerlessness need not, as it so often does in more simpleminded movies, also mean private impotence.

Brizé spares us cheap domestic fracases and even lets Thierry land a job at last, as part of the security team at a big-box retailer. The job’s crushing, a bore where employees get punished for increasingly minor forms of theft, but for us, watching Thierry watch customers via surveillance cameras, it’s a suspenseful revelation: A shopper will pick up some item, scan the nearby aisles, maybe working up the nerve to pocket it. Who will be desperate enough to take so doomed an action? And why do we, as viewers, hunger to see what will happen if they do? Lindon won the awards for best actor at both the Cannes Film Festival and the Césars for this marvelously controlled performance; you can catch him in more active roles, too, as Metrograph screens a mini-retrospective of four other Lindon films April 13 through 15, with the actor appearing in person at some screenings.

The Measure of a Man

Directed by Stéphane Brizé

Kino Lorber

Opens April 15, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Metrograph