The bitterness of separation, divorce and the all too common legal battles between former spouses has made for familiar terrain at the movies. Shoot the Moon, Kramer Vs. Kramer, The War of the Roses, Blue Valentine and Boyhood are a few titles that spring to mind and of course, television drama would be crippled without domestic strife as convenient narrative fodder. Given the countless variations on a theme, Xavier Legrand’s stunning first feature is even more of an achievement and will resonate with a wide audience.
Custody begins with a family court judge delivering her awkward decision regarding shared custody of Antoine (Denis Ménochet) and Miriam Besson’s (Léa Drucker) son, Julien. Despite Miriam and her lawyer’s protests, the judge has agreed that Antoine can see his son on designated weekends. At first, we are inclined as viewers to see both sides of the judge’s argument, but once the film leaves officialdom, Antoine is revealed to be a runaway train of jealousy, petty resentments and barely contained violence. Julien, who is barely out of his teens, is clearly terrified of Antoine, while an older sister, Josephine (Mathilde Auneveux) who is about to be married, refuses to even see her father. Sadly, the ultimate focus of Antoine’s simmering anger is his ex-wife, Miriam, who he claims to want a second chance with, but in reality wants to consume and destroy.
In this debut feature by Xavier Legrand, which deservedly won the Silver Lion at the 2017 Venice Film Festival, the director expands upon his 2014 Oscar nominated short film, “Just Before Losing Everthing”, which is a prequel to the events in Custody and features almost the same cast. Legrand reveals the inadequacy of the French legal system to deal with abusive spouses and their canny lawyers. Custody takes a forensic look at one marriage’s aftermath and transforms a social critique into a haunting thriller.
The genius of Legrand’s film is in the details. As played by Denis Ménochet, Antoine is a kind of a bear-man; from the distance benevolent and gentle, but up close, a dangerous beast. For example, his request for his son to fasten his seat belt is less about safety than a way to assert control. On a broader level, Legrand also shows the economic consequences of divorce. Antoine has had to move and change jobs to be closer to his son, while Miriam is forced to move the family into a so-cial housing complex that is clearly not where she envisioned living earlier in life.
However, Custody is ultimately a film not just about divorce, but the failure of far too many men to deal with their anger and resolve their conflicted feelings toward women. In a chilling, but brilliantly staged climax – which makes wonderful use of ambient sound and darkness – Antoine’s fragile control of his emotions breaks, and he acts out in a manner all too familiar. What is singular about Custody is Legrand’s treatment of a family trying to pick up the pieces only to find itself back in a state of siege created by a person they once trusted and loved.
Director: Xavier Legrand
Writer: Xavier Legrand (screenplay)
Stars: Léa Drucker, Denis Ménochet, Thomas Gioria