The Cannes Film Festival, now midway, veered off the bedroom squabble to offer a variety of other dishes. The French work vying for the Palm d'Or, The Measure of a Man, in Stephane Brize's low-key but powerful social drama talks about the unfeeling market law which now prevails. An ordinary man is forced to compromise his integrity when he has to get food on his table.
Actor Vincent Lindon's Thierry is struggling to find work, having been laid off in a factory. He and his family are surviving on a measly dole of Euro 500 a month when he finally lands a job as a detective in a large supermarket. It has not been easy for him, trying to pay the mortgage for his house, looking after his bright by developmentally disabled teenage son. And his new assignment is not an easy one either.
Brize, who is really a simple storyteller in the mould of Jean Renoir, underlines The Measure of a Man with strong political overtones. The transition in the French society from social realism to modern morality play, which is heavily laced with the motive of profit, can be seen with remarkable clarity.
Thierry's brief is a one-liner. Look out for shoplifters and then shake them into submission. There are some disturbing moments here. An old man steals meat, but when he is caught, he has no money to pay. Then there is a cashier hoarding discount coupons for her own use. There is a third, a shop employee, who scans her own loyalty card to accrue points from the purchases others make.
Each of these scenes is infused with tension and a certain kind of guilt: Thierry can never forget that he might well have been in the shoes of all those he helps nail down. And Lindon is just fascinating to watch as he stands silently looking at the video screens, and when the moment of confrontation arrives, he is not hassled -- at least not outwardly. But when the movie runs into its climax, we understand the turmoil inside him.
A powerfully shot and neatly-scripted work that is rivetingly told in such a few words - that's what is so amazing about The Measure of a Man.
The only Hungarian title in Competition, Son of Saul (directed by Laszlo Nemes), might be all about the Holocaust, but it is more specifically about Sonderkommando, a group of concentration camp workers who oversaw the death of millions of Jews and later disposed of the bodies.
Geza Rohrig, who makes his screen debut in Son of Saul as a Jewish man forced to perform such inhuman tasks, was perturbed at a press conference in Cannes when a journalist suggested that members of Sonderkommando were 'half-hangman and half-victim'. Rohrig interrupted the journalist to say that they were 100 per cent victims! "They have never spilled blood or been involved in any kind of killing. They had no control over their destinies. The were victimised as any other prisoners at Auschwitz."
Son of Saul, which has attracted several five-star reviews, is set in October 1944 as the Allies make their final approaches and pushes. The movie unfolds over a day and a half as the prisoners plot a rebellion and Saul (Rohrig) finds the body of a young boy whom he wishes to have proper burial. As the handheld camera follows him -- as he desperately seeks to find a way of doing this -- Saul meets one wall after another.
Though handheld photography can be intrusive, here in Son of Saul, the technique takes the viewer closer to the characters. A kind of immediacy is established.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Cannes Film Festival for the 26th year.)