A post-divorce custody drama which builds into a nerve-shredding psychological thriller. A feature debut for the director combined with strong performances from the lead characters.
While the 74th Venice film festival was certainly a solid edition, many of its great pleasures – the dark whimsy of del Toro’s The Shape of Water, the perceptive military musings of Samuel Maoz’s Foxtrot, the poetic profanity of Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, Missouri – were the product of established talents staying firmly in their comfort zones. What the line-up lacked was a surprise gem to steal attention away from the big hitters. Or at least that was the case until the final day of the competition, when this nerve-shredding domestic drama by first-time feature director Xavier Legrand was unleashed on unsuspecting audiences.
In a drab magistrate’s court, the lawyers of estranged couple Miriam (Léa Drucker) and Antoine (Denis Ménochet) debate their clients’ parental rights. Miriam is pushing for sole custody of their 12-year-old son Julien (Thomas Gioria), accusing Antoine of intimidation as well as violence against their older daughter Josephine (Mathilde Auneveux).
Antoine’s physicality is undeniably a little imposing, but he seems humiliated by these allegations, while his lawyer’s defence of his character comes across as utterly sincere. Miriam, meanwhile, looks brittle and uptight; possibly traumatised, but perhaps a little vindictive. We can only share in the frustration expressed by the presiding judge that it’s unclear which of the two is lying. It’s a low-key but richly textured opening sequence, which establishes Legrand as an efficient, economical visual storyteller.
Cut to some days later, and we learn that the judge has rejected Miriam’s request. During a tense initial reunion, Antoine weeps silently as he embraces Julien, who sits stiffly in what looks like pained contempt, but which could just as easily be pre-teen petulance. Whatever might have happened in the past, the son’s rejection of his father’s affection is painful to witness.
But any sympathy we might have for Antoine soon begins to erode, as it emerges that he’s driven less by a desire to reconnect with his child, and more by a possessive rage. The masterstroke is the way in which Legrand inches away, almost imperceptibly, from even-handed naturalism towards amped-up horror, over the course of three increasingly stomach-churning set pieces. By the end, there are shades of Kubrick’s The Shining in the looks of abject terror on Miriam and Julien’s faces. (Incidentally, these climactic moments are altogether more jolting than anything in Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, a film being sold entirely on its alleged ability to reduce its audience to quivering wrecks.)
It’s all executed flawlessly by the three central performers, but even the bit players feel fully realised. Special mention to Mathieu Saikaly as Josephine’s hipster boyfriend Samuel, whose grating, puppy-eyed demeanour and astonishingly ill-advised hairstyle offer a welcome touch of comic relief.
With just one prior short under his belt (2013’s Oscar-nominated Just Before Losing Everything, which tells the story of Miriam’s initial escape from Antoine), Legrand appears to have emerged out of the gate as a ready-made auteur. It may be that Custody lacks the narrative complexity to hold up to repeat viewings, but it’s one hell of a calling card, and perhaps the most dazzling fusion of grim social realism and giddy genre thrills since Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.
Paul O’Callaghan, Sight and Sound, 14 April 2018
Critics, eager not to scare the wary, sometimes wave the word “thriller” near austere slices of naturalism. Don’t fret. Custody is almost entertaining enough to qualify as a genre piece. Xavier Legrand’s heavily garlanded debut feature – awarded best film at the recent Audi Dublin International Film Festival – isn’t asking us for any such excuses.
A rigorously researched follow-up to the director’s Oscar-nominated short, Just Before Losing Everything, Custody has the severe integrity of a picture by Ken Loach or the Dardenne brothers. But there’s no denying Legrand’s gift for building tension. Call it a thriller if you like. Just don’t programme it beside Sleeping with the Enemy. The picture begins with a lengthy sequence in which Miriam (Léa Drucker) and Antoine (Denis Ménochet), a recently separated couple, argue their cases before a judge. Even before we learn the true nature of their relationship the scene points up the limitations of such negotiations.
Miriam’s lawyer refers to second-hand accounts of Antoine’s abusive behaviour to their two children: young Julien (Thomas Gioria) and the older Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux). Antoine’s brief argues that the children’s testimony cannot be trusted as Miriam is turning them against their father.
Where have we heard that before? The authorities have little alternative but to grant Antoine access to Julien at weekends.
One can imagine worse outrages. But Legrand soon alerts us to the horror of these visits. The family try to wriggle away from Antoine. They move house. Mum claims not to have a phone. Eventually, however, Julien ends up sitting miserably in dad’s white van. (What else?)
The director is careful to keep acts of violence to a minimum in the opening sections. Nothing conveys the nature of the abuse more effectively than Thomas Gioria’s terrific, clenched performance as the misused young boy. His facial expression constantly pitched between fear and revulsion, he holds himself as if in the presence of an angry cougar. Remain still and it might just go away.
Meanwhile, Gioria makes a pathetic game player of Antoine. The threat of the fist is always there, but antagonism is more usually expressed through belittlement and point scoring. If he can catch Julien lying then, in his own bitter universe, he claws back just a little pride and respect. “Are you happy now?” he asks when he has manoeuvred his son into a social cul-de-sac.
Everyone knows he’s a menace. Everyone is dancing to his tune. His own parents fret nervously when they have him to supper with the boy. But nobody can find a satisfactory way of discontinuing the access.
Legrand draws naturalistic performances from all his cast members, but he shoots in more self-conscious fashion than, say, the Dardennes. One might almost brandish the word “bravura” when discussing his compositions. A tense scene in a lavatory cubicle is shown from the perspective of a camera slowly zooming into the gap at the bottom of the door: feet shuffle, a package is torn apart, a text is nervously sent. Guests at a party move about the space muttering greetings that we can’t quite hear.
The eventual denouement does uncanny things with darkness and hectoring inorganic noises. The result is a film that addresses the worst manifestations of toxic masculinity within the context of a hurtling drama that never allows attention to wander. One might grumpily point out that this grim story does eventually happen upon a convenient full stop. In real life, miseries meander towards other greater or lesser miseries. But Custody remains a singular debut for a director who looks as if he’s capable of much more.
Donald Clarke, The Irish Times, 22 Aug 2018
Total Number of Responses: 66
Film Score (0-5): 4.33
142 attended the opening night of the new season and 66 of you provided a response. A hit rate of 46%. Several observers used the new web page to respond with others sending e mails.
Your views were unanimous in praise of the acting and direction in a film which uses domestic abuse as its theme; “Brilliant acting by the cast, especially the boy. Clever building of tension and menace throughout the film”. “Disturbingly realistic, tense, well-acted”. “Had me on the edge of my seat! Very well done by all the actors to keep up the tension”. “Spellbinding – thank you”. “Probably the most stressful film I’ve seen – ever”. One member asked “Is this an anti-liberal film? What it seems to suggest is that the court's hurried reluctance to look further into the couple's case nearly results in more than a front door being smashed to pieces? Our own liberal sentiments in trying not to pre-judge the bear like Antoine (resembling a garlic flavoured and exceptionally bad tempered Robert Mitchum) are teased as the tension is relentlessly ratcheted up and we come to realise the reason for the rest of the family's lies and deceptions and the catastrophe that is imminent. Having had the truth revealed the film finishes with the outsiders view from the neighbour's doorway as a reminder not to judge what you do not know. Gripping, visceral stuff. 'Kramer versus Kramer' this is not”.
Another observed that “there is something about a director's second or third feature that always has the same features - thrilling, inventive, interesting, but a bit shorter and maybe with some threads that aren't as strong as others. This was no different. The performances were terrific all round, especially Julien, and the film did not let up when we were in the grip of its third act. But it seemed like it was going to do a lot more about which parent should be believed before going utterly into Antoine’s POV and showing us his callousness. The daughter's story needed another 15 minutes to flesh out, since it had some great elements to it, but felt like an under-served side note. I can completely see why the award it won was for direction. The style of the film, with many shots held an uncomfortably long time forcing actors to deliver continuously, as well as so much of the story being told out of frame, you can see that the director has a clear vision and way in which he wants us to experience his film. In all I got a lot out of this film, and will be watching out for Xavier Legrand's work in the future”.
“The most excellent direction and convincing acting by all the cast, especially Julien. Totally gripping and tense – bravo Xavier Legrand”. “Well worth the visit, typically French”. “Wow, what a start to the season. Perhaps the best unenjoyable film I’ve ever seen! Frightenly realistic, superbly acted and directed. But I don’t think I want to watch it again. Excellent”. “Excellent start to the season. Full of tension and suspense and trauma! Great performances by father and son”.
All observations are on the website.
“What a season opener! Emotions sprang back and forth and you were never sure whose story to believe. The clue was in Antoine’s fathers temper…like father like son? How well done”.
“Overemphasis on male brutality dominating good performances by boy and mother”.
“Tense and suspenseful throughout, I sat in dread of the fate that might befall different family members. I wanted to feel more empathy for the father who possibly had a difficult childhood himself and struggled with poor mental health but despite being encouraged to see another side perhaps through a brief introduction to his wife's lover, I could only feel extreme sadness for the little boy caught up in the middle, acted so well in the car scenes. Compelling and sad; the camera staying longer with scenes of tearful grief from the father and fear and desperation from the boy and his mother added to the overall impact”.
“This was the second time seeing this film. Although the tension of the final act is necessarily lessened by knowing the outcome I still found it engaging. A second viewing allowed me to pick some of the more subtle nuances - the ambiguity re the mother's behaviour concerning the daughter (control), her lover (?) (Duplicity), the father's upbringing ('why do you always have to spoil things' - the paternal grandfather). The only person to come out of it well (other than the boy) was the neighbour, whose appearances showed her being 'a good French citizen'. The fact that she was an Algerian immigrant looked like a comment on some of the tensions surrounding the place of immigrants in current French society. If she had not phoned when she did then the outcome could have been quite different. PS apparently there is a short film prequel, about the divorce - same director and actors”.
“Most realistic portrayal of domestic abuse – hugely emotive – excellent acting and pace”. “Unforgettable and disturbing. Should a child actor have to go through that trauma?” “Tense to the power of 10”. “Very gripping”. “Harrowing but brilliant”. “Superb acting especially by the young boy. A study in tension building”. “Dramatic and intense. If it was a reflection of French social care – not a place I’d want to live”.
“Wonderful. Subtle hints all the way through to the end”. “Superb acting especially the boy. A surprising but thrilling ending”. “Great thriller”. “Traumatising drama with an overwhelming atmosphere of menace and violence. Damaged individuals in a dystopian universe. Superb acting and direction”. “Oscar for Julien!” “Tense and harrowing. Good performances all around, especially the boy”. “Tense and believable”. “Brilliant acting and casting of the son. Problem overall – too close to real life and personal experiences”. “A well-structured story that stayed with its focus. It felt like the right length of film for this story to be told”. “Gripping drama – excellent performance by Julien”. “The pregnant pauses confused me”. “Captivating and good acting”. “What a monster. Poor Julien living with such menace”.
“Taut with incredible set pieces. Birthday party scenes stood out and ending felt very real as we looked in”. “Very good – we thought the child manipulative at one point. Shocking!” “Tense but social realism”. “Could not sympathise with the lying little toad”. “Great performances, especially Julien”. “Gripping and tense – correct ending! Wrong judgement by the court – and police just in film”. “Real edge of the seat roller coaster of emotion. Very powerful and excellent cinematography”. “Actors really good. Very tense”. “A bit harrowing and relentlessly tense”. “Tension throughout and excellent acting particularly Julien”. “Well acted but too long. Cannot say I enjoyed it”. “A film about people in whom one can’t take much interest. Lots of vignettes, nuances but very little to grab the attention. Not all bad but clearly below the average level for GFS”. “I am very concerned about how the young boy was being used in the film”.