Directed by Stephane Brize

Written by Stephane Brize and Olivier Gorce

Rated PG, 93 minutes

The measure of a man, according to Plato, is what he does with power. That quote may come to haunt director Stephane Brize and his star Vincent Lindon – even if it is not the original French title. Feted at Cannes last year, Lindon went on to win best actor for this role, as a battler who tries to save his self-respect after his retrenchment. On the day the film premiered at Cannes, another director published an account on the internet charging that the story was plagiarised from his own work.

The French media soon reported Patrice Deboosere’s claim that the film was a ripoff of his 2010 short film, Lundi CDI. Deboosere said Vincent Lindon had contacted him after seeing the short, with the idea of working together on a feature length version. ‘I allowed him (Lindon) to show it to different people to consider it more concretely, reminding him of my desire to work with him. Months later, I learned by chance that Stephane Brize was working on the project,’ Deboosere wrote.

Brize, for his part, has said the story came from his own computer notes, where he keeps lots of ideas. If so, it is puzzling that he credited Deboosere in the acknowledgements (before it screened at Cannes). Whatever the truth, it’s a grubby story for a movie that aims to champion the rights of workers.

Lindon, a major star in France, has a strong reputation for his social conscience. Here he plays Thierry, 15 months into a stretch of unemployment in a northern French town. He keeps retraining at the suggestion of his employment counsellor, only to be told that he is too old to be employed as a forklift driver or crane operator. He has a wife (Karine de Mirbeck) and a disabled son (Matthieu Schaller), neither of whom is given much attention. We do not learn if she has a job, because Brize focuses solely on Thierry’s struggle. We do learn that Thierry is devoted to his son, and that they will have to find 300 Euros a month for his care.

The core of the film is not his search for work, but his reaction to the one job he can get – as a security guard in a large supermarket. After walking the floor, he learns to operate the security surveillance cameras. His job is not just to spy on the shoplifters, but on the staff. The question then becomes how much of this debilitating work he can take.

La Loi du Marche, the original title, means ‘the law of the market’, or ‘market forces’. The British director Ken Loach has had a major influence in France and Belgium, and this film has all the hallmarks of a Loach drama – sans the humour. It is unrelievedly bleak, with Lindon slouching through the film as a man from another age, marooned in the bitter present.

No question, it is a fine performance. Lindon has a minimalist style, a shaggy dog look, and a barely suppressed working-stiff rage that gives the film some grit. Brize follows him with the mandatory long takes and hand-held camera, placing us in the room as participants as Thierry forces himself to go through humiliating interrogations of his fellow-workers. Emotions here are never elaborated, simply visible in the dumb silences. This is what work has come to, the victimisation of your fellow drones. Working for the man, except you don’t even know who the man is.

It’s a dry, grinding kind of story, too mannered by half to convince as naturalism, or even as slice of life. It’s not so easy to imitate Ken Loach, even with an actor this good.