Every year at the Cannes Film Festival there are a handful of French titles that seem to get less press and less distribution than the rest of the lineup. While there are certainly “big” French films as well – last year’s winner, Dheepan, was French – this particular group of French films form more of a subsidiary category within the Official Competition, which is tacitly understood to showcase the year’s best French films alongside the year’s best international films, allowing the Festival to double as something of a domestic competition as well. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that, with the exception of Dheepan, this year’s French Film Festival in Sydney hosts three of the least remarked-upon films of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival: Mon Roi, Valley of Love and The Measure of a Man. Of these, The Measure of a Man has received the least notice, partly because it doesn’t have the star power of Mon Roi (Vincent Cassel) or Valley of Love (Isabelle Huppert, Gerard Depardieu), but also because it is self-consciously minor cinema, totally unconcerned with the flamboyant and dramatic “Frenchness” that often wins over international critics and audiences at Cannes.
In many ways, the film makes more sense if the French title is translated directly as Market Law, since this is probably the most systematic, austere and merciless decimation of contemporary European working conditions since the Dardennes. Indeed, for the first half hour, it could almost play as a Dardennes film, as we follow Thierry (Vincent Lindon), a former factory worker, as he attempts to gain employment in order to support his wife (Karine de Mirbeck) and disabled son (Matthieu Schaller). As with the Dardennes, every dramatic moment in the film is fuelled by unemployment, or the prospect of employment, while the action is shot in a fairly drab, quotidian style that has more in common, at times, with documentary film acting than with what we might think of as stereotypically French cinema. The similarities end there, however, since there’s a world of difference between the anonymous industrial town where The Measure of a Man unfolds and the vortical, cosmic space that is the Dardennes’ Seraing. Where Seraing often feels like a portal in and out of the vast labour-power of the universe, here we’re in a considerably less dramatic or extravagant space, which is not to say that the rage, resentment and rousing hope of the Dardennes isn’t present, but that it has been more circumscribed and contained by a procedural, managerial and bureaucratic culture that was more nascent at the height of their career, only starting to come into its own by the time they arrived at The Kid With a Bike and Two Days, One Night.
With The Measure of a Man, we arrive at a slightly different stage in the evolution and escalation of European austerity in which the sheer extent of unemployed people has become something of a market in itself, with Thierry unable to be considered for even the most menial or straightforward positions without attending courses in “employability” handled by his local unemployment agency, none of which prove to be useful and all of which simply form another way to turn the unemployed into an exploited class. Whereas the conversation about unemployment tends to be fairly brusque, brutal and visceral in the Dardennes, here everything is couched in a new kind of bureaucratic “courtesy” and procedural “professionalism,” most breathtakingly in a scene in which Thierry goes through a gruelling interview for a forklifting job only to be told that he is unlikely to get it and be given a series of “polite” reminders as to how he can improve his interview style. It’s a film made for an age in which the gap between employers and employees is more and more remote – an era in which the Skype interview has become the corporate communicative device of choice – with most of the interminable one-sided conversations that take place in and around the workplace feeling like Skype interviews; we rarely, if ever, see the face of an employee or recruitment agent for any length of time. Even the few moment of reprieve, usually moments spent with Thierry’s family, are shot in this same lopsided, asymmetrical manner, giving the impression that everyone in the film has been precariously sidelined from their lives and ambitions.
As with the Dardennes, then, the camera is somewhat decentred from every encounter, but the result isn’t exactly the volatile flux of the Dardennes so much as an extended bureaucratic pause, or dead zone, with virtually every conversation doubled in length by meaningless, formless verbiage, ums and ahs that always end with an employer or recruitment agency prefacing some casual bombshell with “I just want to be clear about how things stand.” In this world, “clarity,” “transparency” and “accountability” have been entirely co-opted by corporate interests, which is perhaps why the film’s own anti-aesthetic starts to feel more and more like a workplace training video, indistinguishable from the endless upskilling that Thierry is forced to endure to gain even the most rudimentary employment. In a world in which even the most austere documentarian aesthetic has been corporatised, then, it’s clear that the film can’t endure for any length of time in this aesthetic register – it’s uncanny, at moments, how close it comes to the “instructional” videos about unemployment that form part of Thierry’s prison. It feels right, then, that Thierry finally lands a job as a supermarket security agent that allows him to connect that aesthetic of transparency back to a murkier, gloomier visual lens, as he finds that his single most important duty is to learn to “read” and operate the mobile security cameras that slide up and down the roof of the store, a task that is made considerably more difficult and opaque due to the fact that the supermarket is undergoing renovations, resulting in exactly the occluded sightlines and oblique perspectives that the policy of transparency seems designed to forestall.
On their own terms, these scenes are fascinating, as Thierry’s trainer leads him through a series of cues that he can use to identity when and how a customer is likely to shoplift, as well as the best ways to operate the cameras to achieve maximum surveillance over the store. At the same time, however, these extended scenes from within the supermarket camera visually undo, distort and corrode the streamlined “visibility” of the supermarket corporate structure itself, arguing for a kind of capitalist irrealism in response to the rhetorics of capitalist realism and market law that drive the business and its brutal policies. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before Thierry finds that this places him in the position of the recruiters and employers he previously begged from, as part of his job description involves “processing” supermarket employees who have stolen on the job, even though the triviality of their thefts and the risk involved makes it clear that they aren’t even being paid at a subsistence level. In the way it lays emphasis upon Thierry’s movement from one side of the one-sided conversation between employer and employee to the other, the supermarket camera feels like something of a perceptual portal, a beautiful and eloquent symbol and tool for visualising for the “control society” that Deleuze identified as replacing the Foucauldian “disciplinary society”; namely, a society in which the mechanisms of control are concealed precisely by the way in which this purported “transparency” allows people of all classes and situations to “participate” in the exercise of power, rather than merely “distributing” or “experiencing” it in the mode of an older industrial form of subjugation and obedience. Scrutinising tellers as much as customers, the camera ostensibly stands for just this kind of participation, but the way in which its grainy footage is juxtaposed against the crystal-clear cinematics of both the film and the supermarket itself allows it to simultaneously speak on behalf of all the processes and people that have become so transparent that they have become undead, drifting through society with no fixed income, stability or visibility.
Of course, some things don’t change – and one of the continuities between Foucault’s disciplinary society and Deleuze’s control society is that the worker is always working against other workers first and foremost, and for the company or corporation second. In the control society, however, that’s given a new spin with the rise in affective labour needed to secure and maintain even the most menial or subsistence jobs in the first place – an endlessly escalating accumulation of meaningless and costly qualifications, training certificates and general “spin” courses that somehow only seems to make it feel as if Thierry is being bartered and negotiated down further with each encounter. At the same time, that affective energy means that the film is ultimately sustained by extraordinary testaments to the dignity of labour, and to the power of working people to form their own tenuous, transitory moments of communion in the midst of a regime of transparency. The best moment I have seen this year in a film occurs about halfway through the film, shortly after Thierry has arrived at the supermarket, when he is introduced to the staff by way of a farewell party for a beloved colleague, who has worked in the deli section for the last three decades. Although the woman who composes and sings her farewell song is subsequently fired for stealing discount coupons, her ability to rouse her colleagues into solidarity and sympathy is the lasting note of the film, resonating across its mercurial yet decisive conclusion, one of the very strongest to come out of Cannes in 2015, if one of the least flashy or showy in its aesthetic ambitions.