Between panopticon and
synotpicon in the late period films
of Stéphane Brizé
Stéphane Brizé’s fourth and fifth feature films are often read as a couplet due to their shared concern with neoliberal governance under late-stage capitalism, a political tone of dejected resignation, a common Île-de-France backdrop, overlapping casting decisions, and a visual style that has come to characterize the Franco-Belgian social realist genre. Strictly speaking, they are distinct works without narrative continuity, but they inhabit the same cinematic universe, perhaps even portraying the same character in different phases of life. Yet despite their similarities, these films are perhaps better understood as a diptych—a complementary pairing that each function as a standalone work but convey a broader range of meanings when considered jointly.
Briefly, La Loi du Marché (Brizé 2016) is a different film when positioned alongside En Guerre (Brizé 2019), and vice versa. Taken separately, they each recount the plight of a hapless working-class everyman with weathered skin and downcast eyes whose beaten-down expression and sad countenance seem to bear the brunt of late-stage capitalism’s ravages. But their thematic continuity suggests the works are twin components of a single vision. Specifically, the unifying element tying together these two works is a common concern with techniques and practices of surveillance. As elaborated below, La Loi du Marché presents a vision of total surveillance consistent with the panopticon, while En Guerre offers a disjointed surveillance that evokes its devolved correlate: the synopticon. Together, they offer an incisive commentary on the rise of the Surveillance State.
Though neither La Loi du Marché nor En Guerre fits neatly into the now-canonical sub-genre of “surveillance films” (e.g., Rear Window, Minority Report, Caché), it is no accident that cameras appear in nearly every frame. Indeed, if lead actor Vincent Lindon has won accolades for his performances, the real star in both films is the camera. Key moments that advance the plot are told mainly through the mediation of mise-en-abyme: footage from security cameras at a hypermarket in La Loi du Marché and breaking news reports from local television networks in En Guerre. At times, the films’ characters are depicted watching captured video while at other times, captured video fills the entire frame. If this heavy use of diegetic media sometimes feels overbearing, it is no aesthetic flourish or stylistic choice. For Brizé, captured video is both the medium and the object of inquiry, driving the narrative while also serving an expository function. Whether through a security camera or a television news program, the camera renders its subject visible and intelligible to capital, the state, and—by proxy—the viewer.
Traditionally, writing on surveillance has centered around the metaphor of the panopticon. In its classic formulation, the sovereign (or its agents) cast their normalizing gaze upon the many, eager to take corrective measures at the first sign of deviance. (Elmer 2003; Foucault 1995; Gill 1995; Whitaker 1998) Over the last 30 years, the panopticon has been challenged by critics who highlighted a series of alleged shortcomings, including the unidirectionality of its gaze, the passivity of prisoners, the inordinate emphasis on visibility, the undue importance of physical constraint, and perhaps most glaringly, the supposed impossibility of resistance. (Koskela 2002; Norris 2002; Yar 2003) For many, these oversights are serious enough to compel reimagining the panopticon and/or its replacement with an updated model—variously: the electronic panopticon (Gordon 1987), the superpanopticon (Poster 1990), dataveillance (Clarke 1988), the surveillant assemblage (Haggerty and Ericson 2001), and more recently, surveillance capitalism (Zuboff 2019).
Like emergent developments in digital surveillance studies, the synopticon offers itself as a corrective to an outdated panopticon that no longer describes the modern world. According to defenders of this model, if the panopticon was once the dominant mode of surveillance, it has now been supplemented (though not entirely supplanted) by the synopticon, which enacts surveillance of an even more insidious variety. Under the synopticon, the gaze is partial, broken, mediatized, participatory, and even “democratized.” In this modality, the many scrutinize the already-problematic behavior of a select few, imposing their will through the distributed power of social collectivity. (Galič, Timan, and Koops 2017; Lyon 2010; Mathiesen 1997) To the extent that the synopticon sought to extend Bentham’s idealized prison as a metaphor for society, these correctives might be welcome.
Nevertheless, in another sense, as Bart Simon (2005) is keen to remind us, the panopticon was never meant to be taken as literally as its most forceful critics contend. A more expansive interpretation of the panopticon might prove more fruitful than its utter abandonment. Moreover, in a regressive turn, marginalized populations are today among the most likely to experience retrograde “embodied” surveillance alongside the more contemporary digital variety. (Clarke, Parsell, and Lata 2021) Following in this spirit, I argue that the panopticon and synopticon are not successive stages in the advancement of surveillance, but they operate concurrently and complementarily under the current regime.
La Loi du Marché
La Loi de Marché centers on the travails of Theirry, a laid-off factory worker struggling through an extended bout of involuntary joblessness punctuated by brief stints of gainful employment in the service sector. Thierry’s relation to the security state is most evident in the film’s main act when he lands a job as a security guard at a department store, ostensibly tasked with discouraging “inventory shrinkage” (shoplifting). Thierry is overqualified for and unsuited to the position (it likely represents a significant pay cut for a skilled industrial laborer) but it provides a source of income nonetheless.
His responsibilities include monitoring a console of 80 cameras that appear capable of simultaneously recording all activity in the vast shopping center. Working the controls, Thierry plays the part of a cinematographer on a grandiose set. In one particularly evocative sequence, Thierry toggles a joystick to guide a camera along a metal railing embedded in the store’s ceiling, evoking a movie camera on a dolly. In the next scene, we see neither Thierry nor his mobile camera, but the tracking shot he generates as his camera careens through the building’s rafters, bearing witness to the mundanity of consumption.
Thierry also plays the role of the undeputized police officer, apprehending suspected shoplifters and demanding the return of pilfered items on threat of legal consequence. The oppressive, panoptical dimensions of this surveillance apparatus are emphasized when Thierry is told by a colleague to look for behaviors that are not ‘normal’—such as holding on to an item for too long rather than putting it in one’s shopping trolley. Inevitably, each of the accused denies wrongdoing until Thierry invokes the surveillance apparatus and clears the burden of proof: “The camera saw you do it.” No footage is necessary (this courtroom has a low evidentiary threshold). The presence of cameras alone, and the remote possibility that said footage might conceivably exist, is enough to force a confession. This, after all, is the uncanny power of the surveillance state: the cameras demand compliance, whether or not they are actively monitored (or even operational). Well beyond the field of vision, the panopticon functions as a technology of power, subjectifying even that which it cannot see.
Complicating matters further, at least half the offenders dragged into Thierry’s office-cum-makeshift interrogation room are not shoplifters but employees accused of malfeasance (one has supposedly used her rewards card to rack up points on customer purchases). Thus, he is effectively required to spy on fellow employees in addition to customers, all of whom are reduced to “suspects” by the panopticon.
In the surveillance camera sequences, a linear alignment of elements begins with the viewer, passes through the director’s gaze, continues through Thierry’s video screen array, and lands on the customers/employees/suspects. Like Thierry, the viewer literally looks down on the workers from the standpoint of mastery and triumph. Just as a crane shot offers an “objective” neutrality, placing the viewer at a distant remove from the action, Thierry’s cameras shield us from the chaotic churn of working-class consumptive habits while revealing an essential Truth that can only be seen from above: the real or potential criminality of all it observes. In this sense, Thierry functions as a stand-in for the director. If Brizé’s camera always remains at considerable remove from the action, in the department store scenes, the move is total—we gaze upon the people from the standpoint of capital, the heroic architect of their fate.
Following Paul Virilio (1994), the camera’s aperture functions as an apparatus of capture, both captivating and encapsulating. Like what Michel de Certeau called an “erotics of knowledge” (1984), the desire to see from a distance is not only the desire for mastery over but that of inoculation from. The presumed observer is physically removed from the (potentially dangerous) action on the ground, even as that very physical remove lends itself to command and control. The throngs of shoppers can only be understood from a spatially divergent position-specifically from an elevated, distanced, detached perspective.
Thierry’s cameras offer a vantage point that can separate fact from fiction, sort through competing discursive claims, and establish a final metaphysical "Truth." When this modality of representation is turned on something as complex, multivalent, and aleatory as a mass of shoppers, it necessarily forsakes these qualities in order to reconstruct it as an object of knowledge. Delimited in time and space, solid and bounded, it becomes something that can be dissected, studied, and, above all, factored into social, economic, and political calculations. It finally "appears" only when splayed out on the dissection table like a once-living creature.
Much has been made of the brutal irony of Thierry’s plight. In his desperation, he cannot but find a job monitoring and meting out punishment to petty thieves whose only crime is the misfortune of occupying a social position slightly below his own. (Sticchi 2021) In accepting the role of security guard, Theirry is not practicing countersurveillance so much as ressentiment, transforming himself from watched to watcher (albeit on a small stage). Surveillance studies have often neglected the conscription of the working class by the surveillance state. In these roles, they serve not as the all-seeing prison guards of Foucault’s panopticon but as the middling functionaries necessary to sustain a vast operation far exceeding their immediate purview. Fair enough, but the film has grander designs.
In the film's first act, Thierry is the victim of panoptical surveillance of a subtler but no less pernicious variety. We watch Thierry move unsteadily through the empty spaces that constitute the hollowed-out husk of an eviscerated welfare state: the unemployment office, the job training center, a financial planner consultation, and an appointment with a social worker. In every case, his status, capabilities, and potential are evaluated, rated, and assessed in relation to norms, averages, and statistically-determined metrics. Though the film takes pains to humanize Thierry, in the eyes of the state and its adjunct institutions, he is but a dividual: a series of data points to be compared (often unfavorably) to the infallible patterning of The Bell Curve. (Deleuze 1992) In another sequence, he performs a mock job interview for an audience of fellow jobseekers who then critique his performance as it is replayed on a video monitor: "Your voice is monotone," one says. "Your posture is not good," says another. Thierry nods stoically. Following Mark Poster (1990), this sequence suggests that if the panopticon’s modus operandi is the camera, the superpanopticon equivalent may well be the questionnaire, with the job application and resulting inquest taking the form to its logical conclusion. As Goffman reminds us, there is perhaps no more stilted human interaction than the pre-employment screening interview. Less an assessment of employability than an exercise in ritualized pretense, the interviewee performs docility and deference while the interviewer recites scripted questions.
To be sure, there are no cameras in evidence at the financial planner’s office, but Thierry remains immersed in a panoptic environment even when he escapes the camera’s frame. Thus, though he manages to avoid the CCTV’s relentless stare, there can be no escaping the scrutinizing gaze of evaluation. Whether or not he is watched, he is nonetheless “made visible.” Moreover, as we watch Thierry drift in and out of various state bureaus and social service offices, the rapid-fire sequence of brief scenes has a montage effect, suggesting linkages between the various institutions. As has often been suggested, the modern panopticon involves a flow of information between organizations, a social flattening in which data sharing is the unifying element.
Much of the film's dramatic tension is generated by Thierry's inability and unwillingness to construct himself as a commodity in the job market. He does not conform to the prescriptions of entrepreneurial self-presentation that have become normalized as a mode of neoliberal governance.
When prepared for U.S. release, the film discarded its original French moniker La Loi du Marché (Law of the Market), which was perhaps deemed too heavy-handed for U.S. audiences, and took on the more politically ambiguous Measure of a Man—a change the New York Times deemed sanitized and “bland.” (Dargis 2016) However, if the English version does not explicitly indict market forces, invoking the concept of “measure” allows a richer, more layered set of interpretations. Analog cameras, we recall, often came packaged with viewfinder overlays imprinted with grids and tick marks to aid the videographer in properly composing the image. “Measure of Man” suggests that the innocuous exchanges and interactions of everyday life are valorized and ultimately marketized through the logic of measure. Moreover, it is through measure that a person encounters themself as a fully marketized unit of production, shorn of humanistic pretense. (Clough 2012) Indeed, if the camera is primed to take measure of the Social (Grimshaw and Ravetz 2009), Thierry continually finds himself on the receiving end of the (measuring) rod.
In short, those who watch La Loi du Marché hoping to find an unruly, disobedient subject will be disappointed. Regardless of who is watching or being watched at any particular moment, surveillance is presented as a pervasive, inescapable reality, embedded in the very fabric of society. One can no more escape surveillance than escape society itself.