Like last year’s Two Days, One Night, The Measure of a Man is a triumph of realistic cinema, and a dirge for a blue-collar European worker left stranded after a once-solid job has melted away. Co-writer/director Stéphane Brizé often thrusts us into situations without any prior exposition, then gives the scene plenty of room to unspool as we figure out what’s going on and soak in the atmosphere and emotions. He starts the film in the midst of an intense session between a frustrated Thierry (Vincent Lindon) and an apologetic job counselor. Thierry, we learn, is running out of both money and employment options after being out of work for more than a year, and he has just found out that he wasted months on training that the counselor now admits was useless.
The first half of the film alternates mainly between Thierry’s attempts to find a job, his meetings with a series of well-meaning but unhelpful counselors and social workers, and his blessedly tranquil home life. We learn very little about Thierry’s wife (Karine de Mirbeck) or their son Mathieu (Matthieu Schaller), whose cerebral palsy creates a few extra challenges but is mainly treated as irrelevant, by both the family and the film. Wife and son are mostly seen doing everyday things around the house, but as Mathieu tells a joke at dinner or his parents practice moves they learned in dance class, the cozy intimacy of those simple interactions tells us all we need to know about what motivates Thierry to sidestep his wounded pride and do whatever it takes to support his family.
As the title implies, this is the kind of situation that tests a man’s character. Lindon, who won Best Actor at Cannes for the role, gives Thierry a watchful dignity that invites our empathy while hinting at a smoldering anger that never quite erupts, as he endures cringe-inducing scenes like a confidence-shredding training session in which the other trainees criticize almost every aspect of his performance after he role-plays a job interview. Then he finally finds work—and things get even worse. Trolling for shoplifters as a security guard at a big department store is bad enough, as Thierry shadows desperate shoppers who are only a step or two farther down the road he was on himself before landing the job. But betraying fellow employees by monitoring security cameras for actionable infractions so the manager can “lose some staff” proves unbearable. As Thierry interrogates culprits in the back room, his sad-eyed reticence smolders with the outraged empathy he can neither afford to express nor bear to repress.