Vincent Lindon’s Tough Love
By Graham Fuller
Never mind that it was Jean-Paul Belmondo who muttered his awe for “Bogie” in Breathless. It is Vincent Lindon who has truly assumed Humphrey Bogart’s mantle—Jean Gabin’s, too.
The hangdog 56-year-old, who has become French cinema’s preeminent icon of existential fraughtness, is no more conventionally handsome than the stars of La bête humaine and In a Lonely Place. Excepting Louis Jourdan, Alain Delon, Sami Frey, and Romain Duris, French actors aren’t handsome, but beaux-laids. Lindon’s receding hair has long seemed an afterthought; his hooded, close-set eyes are assets when he snarls, and they can make his gaze harrowing or self-lacerating, though they are capable of expressing a disarming tenderness. That he exudes an animalistic sexual charisma is indisputable. His characters are antithetical to the un-lusty men the Depps, Pitts, Damons, and Bradley Coopers are required to play. (No amount of dwarf-tossing or bear-slaying puts Leonardo DiCaprio in the same sexy beast category as Gabin or Lindon.) Daniel Craig’s and Clive Owen’s dynamic English blokes are closer in spirit; cable television has produced an American equivalent via Mad Men, though Jon Hamm’s Don Draper—a capitalist construct as much as a man—beds women as a sick power play whereas Lindon’s nineteenth-century neurologist in Alice Winocour’s Augustine (2012) and his seaman turned sleuth in Claire Denis’s Bastards (2013) are predators consumed by passion.
To judge Lindon’s presence from his American-released imports alone is misleading since his choice of roles is eclectic. He first made an impression on U.S. audiences as the man whom Valérie Lemercier’s self-liberating Laure picks up and sleeps with on the eve of moving in with her boyfriend in Claire Denis’s Friday Night (2002): where had this calm, mature, rugged amoureux, so capable of immediate intimacy, been hiding? He was amusingly vain and philosophically perplexed as the husband undergoing an identity crisis in Emmanuel Carrère’s La moustache (2005), which did receive a U.S. release. More recently, in the tepid comedy London mon amour (a.k.a. Mes amis, mes amours, 2008), he was loose, affable, and relatively talkative. Having played a high-school teacher who rescues his wrongfully imprisoned wife in Fred Cavayé’s Pour elle (2008), Lindon brought psychological depth to his portrayal of a guilt-ridden ex-cop in Cavayé’s otherwise uninvolving violent action thriller Mea Culpa (2014), which has yet to open in America. The Lindon image that persists outside of France is that of a laconic, earthy, and effective (if not always heroic) man whose masculine authority is essential—who doesn’t need to posture or blaze with faux intensity.
“The measure of a man is what he does with power,” Plato wrote. One who misuses power for personal gain, the quotation implies, is less of a man than one who uses it to benefit others. Integrity isn’t a staple in Lindon’s resume, which includes his vile bourgeois in Coline Serreau’s Chaos (2001) and his glowering anti-Semite in Benoît Jacquot’s Diary of a Chambermaid remake (2015). Yet his characters’ grappling with their consciences in Philippe Lioret’s Welcome (2009), Augustine, and Stéphane Brizé’s Madame Chambon (2009) and A Few Hours of Spring (2011), prioritizes the conflict between selfishness and selflessness—or at least fairness—that’s alien to criminals and ruthlessly ambitious men.
The Measure of a Man, Lindon’s third consecutive film with Brizé, is a spare social realist drama about an illegally downsized factory machinist who, after months of supporting his family on a monthly benefit of 500 euros, gets a job, but must then decide if it is morally right to keep it. Lindon’s Thierry has been made haggard by his plight. In the first half of the film, he endures humiliating interview-training sessions and criticisms of his resumé and his uningratiating demeanor as a job-seeker. A bank manager icily refuses to give him a loan to pay for the care his developmentally disabled son will need in college, but urges him instead to cash in his nearly completed mortgage and buy a life insurance policy. Thierry’s refusal to substantially lower the price he and his wife had agreed upon with a couple for the sale of their seaside mobile home stems not from pigheadedness but residual pride.
Once hired as a big-box store detective—the job bringing him financial relief—Thierry is appalled to find that he not only has to use the store’s CCTV screens to spy on potential shoplifters but also on his fellow employees, since management is looking for trivial excuses to slash the work force. Frequently filmed from a 30-degree rear side angle by DP Eric Dumont, and in one two-shot as the alternating object of a flurry of rack focusing, Thierry is a circumspect observer of a series of interrogations targeting shoppers and workers alike. He speaks his “lines” to get the offenders to cooperate with growing embarrassment, and it becomes clear he is weighing up if his much-needed wage justifies his working for such a dehumanizing embodiment of the globalized economy, which heaps upon its impoverished victims the kinds of mortifications he suffered when unemployed. A master class in charged reticence, Lindon’s performance won him the best actor award at Cannes last year.
The Measure of a Man is self-evidently analogous to Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night (2014) and an oblique companion piece to Alain Cavalier’s Pater (2011). The issue of how to dispense power is central to Cavalier’s playful semiautobiographical meta-docufiction, which riffs on his and Lindon’s friendship as they meet—enjoying a plein air epicurean picnic with Cavalier’s chauffeur and an associate at one point—to discuss and investigate their roles in a mooted film. Cavalier has cast himself as the retiring French president who will instruct Lindon’s prime minister—whom he has hired away from the business he has run for 25 years as an egalitarian concern for its employees—to enforce the legalization of reduced income differentials on a national level. PM Lindon’s support of the proposed statute anticipates, on a macro scale, Thierry’s detestation of the obscene penny-pinching that costs The Measure of a Man’s big-box store employees their livelihoods—and one her life. The actor’s personal railing in an unguarded moment against “gobshites” who compromise—bringing him to “an unspeakable rage” and to the “verge of tears”—anticipates Thierry’s refusal to compromise over the sale of the beloved mobile home. Presumably unscripted, PM Lindon’s announcing he wants to review the French honor system further bespeaks the actor’s values. “I’m not comfortable with the Legion d’Honneur,” he says. In contrast, his desire to strip the award’s insignia, as well as health benefits, from recipients who move abroad smacks of nationalism. Lindon’s liberal fans will appreciate the disgust he registers in the film for the designer labels that pepper the stores of his Paris neighborhood; that he resents capitalists, dealers, and distributors who create addictions; that this wealthy industrialist’s son, who identifies with “the small fry,” lives in a flat in a five-story block that had only acquired an elevator shortly before the film was made. His one indulgence appears to be clothes—he and Cavalier film each other in Lindon’s extensive wardrobe when the director comes over to borrow a tie. Still, he throws nothing away: he proudly holds up one of his grandfather’s well-preserved shoes to the camera, extolling the beauty of a sole made of one piece of leather.
“I like him. He’s warm. A touch impulsive—I’ll rein him in,” Cavalier says of his costar as he secretly watches him making a phone call in the director’s garden. “He’s robust, frighteningly sympathetic. He’ll be popular.” He means Lindon would make a popular prime minister in the pretend movie, but he’s talking about the man.
Lindon’s most indelible performance may be in Claire Denis’s dank, bleak film noir Bastards. Modeled on Akira Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well (itself rooted in Hamlet), with trace elements of Gilda, Get Carter, The Conversation, and Raymond Chandler’s crime novels, the film stars Lindon as naval captain Marco Silvestri, a divorced father of two girls, who is summoned to Paris from his ship mid-voyage after his brother-in-law and onetime best friend Jacques commits suicide. Harsher in his chivalry than Chandler’s Marlowe, Marco excoriates his self-pitying sister Sandra (Julie Bataille) for her lax parenting of her and Jacques’s teenage daughter, Justine (Lola Créton), an addict, herself suicidal, who has been vaginally mutilated and hospitalized. Marco’s consoling of his niece recalls Marlowe’s gentle ministering to the traumatized Merle Davis in The High Window. Though he abandoned Sandra and Jacques years before, having seemingly detected some moral deficit in his own family and the couple’s union, Marco is not so unforgiving that he doesn’t sell his most prized possessions to save the widow from bankruptcy.
Marco takes an apartment above the shady industrialist Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor)—who had made loans to Jacques to prop up the shoe factory he was managing on Sandra’s behalf—and begins an affair with Laporte’s wife, Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni), ostensibly to discover if the degenerate-seeming Laporte was responsible for Jacques’s demise and Justine’s rape. Though his investigation leads him into the heart of other men’s depravity, it’s Marco’s comparatively “normal” needs that derail him. Brutish toward Raphaëlle during their first sexual tryst, he falls in love with her and lets down his guard—not realizing she will turn on him like a praying mantis when the terrible cost of her adultery is brought home to her. Lindon makes Marco’s transition from vigilante to victim alarming: Denis does not merely probe the morbid decadence of the Silvestri clan but complexly suggests, via her star’s Gabin-like fatalism, that men who abandon their hard-wired behaviors court disaster; the film is, in a sense, an allegory of the bloodied male’s post-feminist meltdown. For reasons that may be ambiguous, male and female audience members alike may find it comforting that such a manly and formidable actor as Vincent Lindon should embody such a crisis, or, indeed, any other.
Graham Fuller is a regular contributor to Film Comment, Cineaste, and Sight & Sound. He has also written for the New York Times, Artforum, and the Village Voice, and is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle.