The brutal irony of job-searching in capitalist culture is the unquestioned expectation that one emit an unwavering aura of accommodation while fighting for their livelihood. No matter how job-seekers are treated, they’re to maintain a sunny-side-up demeanor that testifies to their value as a potential member of a team, though this good cheer is challenged by a variety of conventions, which include: recruiters providing the wrong information; trainings that are revealed to be irrelevant upon completion; and endless online applications, which require the regurgitation of information already theoretically honed on résumés. All this effort is often greeted with resounding indifference, returning the involuntarily unemployed to metaphorical page one, in which they parse out new employment opportunities and solicit more advice, going round and around in a spiritually deadening cycle of pointlessness.
These procedures are just a few of the countless checks and balances that are instilled in society to maintain insecure complacency within the populace, in what collectively constitute a grand embodiment of the sort of experiment that’s dramatized in Experimenter—a rigged habitat designed to constrict people into performing behaviors that counteract common sense or decency. Films are often maddeningly vague about the role that jobs and money—which are essentially our gods—play in our lives because many of us go to them precisely to escape such uncomfortable matters, which is why The Measure of a Man represents such a gratifying shock to the system. The film’s entirely concerned with the efforts of a fiftysomething male who’s looking to become reemployed before losing everything he and his family have managed to scrap together, pointedly offering little distraction from a tedious, unmooring life beset by restrictive, aforementioned hurdles.
When we meet Thierry (Vincent Lindon), he’s in the grips of relentless correction and advisory. A former factory worker, it’s clear that Thierry doesn’t possess the skill set for landing a job, which is entirely different from the abilities that are actually required of him in his ideal work environment. In a counseling session, younger students take Thierry to task for his performance during a mock interview, primarily for his evasiveness and curt, unenthusiastic answers. It’s immediately clear that he’s an introvert, and, as most of us know, corporate culture primarily rewards flatulent extroverts. The first half of the film documents the steady, reliable stripping away of Thierry’s dignity as he seeks work, while revealing the insidious resemblances that other social interactions bear to job-seeking.
When Thierry applies for a loan, for instance, he’s rejected because he isn’t employed. Of course, Thierry might not need the loan if he had a job, which is a familiar catch-22 of first-world society’s manipulation of the broke and floundering. The bank attendant prods Thierry in a passive-aggressive manner similar to that of many of his potential employers, using stock euphemisms like “eventualities,” urging him to sell his home, which he recognizes as fiscal suicide at his age and station of vulnerability. When Thierry and his wife (Karine de Mirbeck) speak to officials about their son’s (Matthieu Schaller) scholastic performance, they talk in similarly metric language that allows the audience to understand these methods of evaluation and speculation as beginning early in one’s life, inoculating citizenry to a culture that regards them as cattle.
These diverse negotiations, comprising nearly the entirety of the film, are dramatized by director Stéphane Brizé with a heightened and unusually specific sense of operative tactility. When Thierry eventually merits a loan, Brizé bothers to show the characters actually discussing the terms of the period of repayment; when the protagonist and his wife consider selling their trailer, the director lingers on their haggling with a potential customer for much longer than conventional narrative pacing would lead one to expect, fostering protracted discomfort. The audience is always intensely aware of the stakes in The Measure of a Man. Unemployed, Thierry is cast back into a jungle in which every element of life is a transaction of power, in which he’s outgunned.
Brizé saves his boldest flourish for the film’s midpoint. Just as we’re resigned to watching a hopeless, nontraditional sort of process thriller, Thierry gets a job, though his attainment of it is daringly elided. One moment he’s weathering the search for work, and the next he’s a security officer in a department store, helping to interrogate folks caught shoplifting in altercations that also weirdly resemble the sort of scolding that he’s recently escaped. The interviews, the conferences at his child’s school, the conversations at the bank, and the interrogations at the store all involve crass attachments of “objective” rules of conduct to unquantifiable matters of resentment and survival. Eliding Thierry’s one victory illustrates how the fear of unemployment haunts him, and how quickly one can shift from oppressed to oppressor. Landing a job provides Thierry and his family with financial relief, but the tense precariousness he feels hasn’t been lanced. Disaster is never not a possibility.
The Measure of a Man exhibits the spry subtlety of Jean and Luc Dardenne’s films, and, consequently, it’s possible that it will be similarly mistaken for a work of “naturalism.” Brizé manipulates his images with airy finesse, particularly in how he frames Thierry, who ’s often positioned in either the extreme right or left of the images so as to emphasize his separation from society, or, when he’s helping to prosecute shoplifters, to illustrate the character’s necessary distancing of himself from the latter’s desperation, which is familiar to him. At times, the softness of the images’ backgrounds directly communicates Thierry’s act of mentally tuning out, numbing himself to the unpleasantness of his duties. The director’s greatest asset, though, is Lindon’s sad, weathered, haunted face, which invests the film with omniscient heartache, offering evidence of the sense of self that’s lost in the bureaucratic labyrinth that many of us call home.