A film like The Measure of a Man needs the right actor in the leading role, and Vincent Lindon is the right actor. He’s not commanding, but he’s dignified; he’s not emotive, but he’s emotional; he’s not a force of nature, but if he is then he’s a fault line waiting to quake. He’s always just about to boil, “simmering”, maybe, but then again there’s even less violence in his demeanor than there is in a pot of increasingly hot water. Lindon is simply comfortable, at ease and natural in a tie or a T-shirt, genuine as if he’s blissfully unaware of the camera in his face (and in Measure it’s really in his face).
On the other hand Lindon’s character, unemployed factory worker Thierry Taugourdeau, is decidedly uncomfortable. There are very few opportunities for Thierry to just loosely enjoy life in his own body in the manner of the actor portraying him; Thierry can’t afford that. He’s confronted with his financial realities during every waking moment, sometimes explicitly and sometimes during a scene of him dancing with his wife, and Measure presents Thierry during a time in his life when his employment is everything. He’s like a saggy old Augie March in a rotation of labor by necessity instead of by election; instead of working in jobs dictated by his pride, he takes what he can get and usually has to suppress that pride.
The best reference point is last year’s Two Days, One Night, another film about the French working class led by Marion Cotillard. Both are filmed like documentaries with very little gloss or style, letting the actors do almost 100% of the work (okay, work is a poor word choice). Both follow main characters on the receiving end of an unfair deal, whether it’s the loss of a job or an inability to find one. Both characters feel a pressure from their family to rise above the ceilings put in place by society, and both try and fail before ever achieving anything resembling success.
But Cotillard garnered her Oscar nomination with an incredibly emotional performance, breaking down at the drop of a hat and shifting from determined workforce member to volatile, unstable individual. Two Days, One Night is the more feminine of the two in almost every sense: The Measure of a Woman. In Measure of a Man, one is always expecting this volatility from Lindon’s Thierry. If he were to break down in silent tears in front of his desk, or instigate an argument with his wife, or snap at work and launch into a tirade, then we’d say ah, Thierry, he finally snapped. It never happens. Thierry swallows his pride in the most painful of ways: in silence. Somehow, though, his suffering is every bit as emotional as the tears and screams of the woman in the same boat played by Cotillard. It’s like motionless emotion.
And Measure is fairly motionless itself. Perhaps there’s something about the Francesca Beale Theater at Lincoln Center, where Measure played at this year’s New York Film Festival. Last year it played host to Jauja, a Viggo Mortensen-starring film currently streaming on Netflix under the hilariously misleading banner Action & Adventure. Under the direction of Lisandro Alonso, the camera in Jauja seems afraid to move — the shot opens on a grassy field, Viggo rides through on a horse, and then the shot cuts. Alonso described the reasoning with reference to the proverbial glass of water on the table which, if filmed for long enough, being to beg the question as to who is drinking it. Maybe the Beale Theater is reserved for NYFF offerings with a similar resistance to flashiness or movement, and if so then Measure is the latest in line.
The glass of water theory actually works much better here, because it’s not a glass of water we’re looking at (and it’s not grassy field after grassy field like in a certain Action & Adventure film); here, it’s just Thierry. In a scene at one of his group training workshops the group advises Thierry on his interview skills — his demeanor, his clothes, his body language, his actual language — although advise is putting it lightly. They pretty much rip him to shreds in a diplomatic way that asserts something is wrong with him and then politely asks him to agree. Thierry doesn’t speak for five minutes, and the camera doesn’t linger from his face. Is he frustrated? Hurt? Offended? Simply numb or despondent? Is he hearing the advice, or is he hearing an assault on his character? Is he purposefully silent, knowing that dances and dinners with his family make sitting through this work it? Or is he silent because he truly has nothing to offer? Who’s drinking this glass of water?
The Measure of a Man is entirely on the shoulders of Vincent Lindon, and it’s well worth a watch for that reason alone. It doesn’t end in the way that one might hope, and it doesn’t exactly zip along. It will probably be categorized in Action & Adventure someday. But Lindon — he’s beyond saggy, his eyelids and mustache and forehead wrinkles all drooping down and out. His eyes have seen so much. But he’s sexy, no? The title of this film is apt — Lindon is a man’s man, tough and vulnerable, a guy you wouldn’t want to fight and a guy you would want to hug. My esteemed co-NYFFer described him as a cross between Mel Gibson and Hulk Hogan (“old Hulk Hogan”), but then again this is the same esteemed co-NYFFer that participated with me in fan-casting Lindon as James Bond, Randy Quaid as M, Jesse Eisenberg as Blofeld, Tim Blake Nelson as Felix Leiter and Laura Prepon as a Bond Girl.
Until that day comes check out Lindon in The Measure of a Man or in La moustache, in which he is also uncomfortably comfortable throughout. After winning a Cannes Acting prize for the former, perhaps Lindon will be enticed to more American cinema (hopefully good American cinema, not Half Moon Street). As it stands, it’s a shame that he’s not more well-known in the States. There are pornstars that are more famous than Lindon, but none that are sexier.