To the cinema to see Stéphane Brizé's film The Measure of a Man. The first half of the film is a picture of the miseries of unemployment — the mortifying routines of futile retraining, reorientation, learning to abandon pride. The second half of the film is a picture of the miseries of employment — learning to abandon kindness, pity and the pride you have left, having to make a show of devotion to employers who in return care nothing for you. It is a quietly unconventional film; it offers little narrative, no catharsis, much vicarious embarrassment and shame; it shows you mostly what you already knew, but the clarity leaves you squirming back into the darkness.
The protagonist, Thierry (Vincent Lindon, who last month at Cannes won the Best Actor prize for this role), has a Skype interview for a job working machine tools. The interview establishes that he is an experienced machine-tool operator, that he has worked on the right makes of machine — ah, but he's only familiar with the version 7 operating system, not version 8: the interviewer wonders why he didn't take the time to familiarize himself with the newer version while he was still employed. He tells Thierry that the job will be at a lower level than his last job, that he will be paid less, that he will have to work flexible hours, that by the way, his resumé is poorly written. And once Thierry has swallowed all these little humiliations, the interviewer tells him, in the interests of honesty, that he has practically no chance of getting the job.
Some disjointed thoughts:
2) As the English title implies, it is in part a film about masculinity. At a dance class, Thierry is rigid with embarrassment when the male instructor steps in to take Thierry's wife's place; when they go to meet the couple planning to buy their slightly crappy, ageing mobile home near the sea, it is Thierry and the husband who negotiate. Thierry's waning sense of manhood is clear in what he denies, what he fears: I am not begging, he tells the husband; elsewhere, he protests that he is not a coward. But this is a nuanced masculinity, shorn of machismo. At home, Thierry, not his (unnamed) wife, helps their disabled son to dress himself. Though at a later stage it feels horribly possible, there is no build-up of anger or climactic explosion of rage. Manhood seems less important than humanity.
3) The absence of an explosion leads to another point: the film doesn't offer a closed narrative — it starts and ends in medias res, letting the audience work out what has happened, what is likely to happen next (nothing good). There's a moral openness to match. The film has been compared to Ken Loach, but Loach likes his villains; he doesn't seem to grasp, as Brizé does, that the system deprives us all of choices; it doesn't give us room to do the wrong thing or the right one.
4) Films, like politicians, and like us a lot of the time, take the view that family is paramount; and from Tolstoy downward, fiction has tended to divide families into the happy and the unhappy. Thierry's family seems neither, though: from what we see, it is loving, it functions; but it is possible that a loving family is not necessarily a happy one. The film concentrates entirely on Thierry's experience; no other point of view is offered, and because he is a man, because of his generation, because his confidence has been dented, he does not express much. So we don't know for sure what moves him. Still, it seems possible that the family is not the centre of hi's life (though to the bank employee interviewing him — more pointless humiliation — about a loan, he says that his son is his priority): perhaps he is more self-centred than that. This isn't a moral point, only an observation about how we function; we're all more egotistical than we like think.
5) Thierry lands a job as a security guard at a supermarket. He is paid to spy not just on shoppers but on his fellow employees, who are committing such crimes as hoarding discount coupons and swiping their own loyalty cards to earn points from shoppers' purchases. When a shoplifter or an employee is caught, Thierry is present at the interviews — which are, like his own job interviews, rituals of humiliation. He is there as muscle (at last, a use for his manhood), but is also called on to testify, to back up the employer's version of events, lending his integrity to the process of torment. The interviews all end in confessions. The correct word for this society, in which unqualified obedience and loyalty are demanded, personal surveillance is ubiquitous, is "Orwellian". But Orwell was wrong about so much: he assumed it would be the state that would be grinding its boot into a human face, not shopkeepers.
6) I've used the word 'humiliation' a few times, because it seems the best word for what Thierry suffers. The film implies, I think, that this is deliberate — the state retains violence as a last resort, but meanwhile its bureaucracies and the corporations that are step by step usurping its functions fall back on humiliation as the next best form of coercion. If you want to see the results, look around you — at the shittiness and insecurity that the young now assume are an essential part of a working life, at the sodding referendum.