Domestic violence is a gruelling topic that has been strangely underrepresented in the current cinematic landscape. While several films made a big impact in the 1990s, notably Lee Tamahori’s ‘Once Were Warriors’, Joseph Ruben's ‘Sleeping with the Enemy’, the Tina Turner biopic, ‘What’s Love Got to Do with It’, and Gary Oldman’s ‘Nil by Mouth’, the subject matter seems to have been subsumed by the revenge film genre in 2018 (such as the recent ‘A Vigilante’).
French writer/director Xavier Legrand was nominated for the Oscar for Best Live Action Short for 2014 with his film ‘Just Before Losing Everything’. Running under 30 minutes, with the gradual intensity of a cat-and-mouse thriller, the film followed a mother and her children as they meet in a supermarket and begin the first steps of escaping a violent and abusive husband. Now Legrand has made his feature-length debut with ‘Custody’, which picks up the threads of this earlier story.
Following the same family, played by the same cast of actors, the film begins with a custody hearing. The judge, essentially taking on the role of a viewer who has never watched ‘Just Before Losing Everything’, is listening to evidence presented by working-class couple that have been separated for about a year and are about to go through a divorce.
From this outsider’s perspective, it is difficult to really know what's going on with the family. Neither sibling - 11-year-old Julien (Thomas Gioria), nor Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux), a music conservatory student a few days away from celebrating her 18th birthday - wants time with their father. The heavy-set but quietly spoken Antoine (Denis Ménochet, ‘Assassin's Creed’, ‘The Program’) doesn’t appear to be the fearsome monster he’s described as. Could the mother, Miriam (Léa Drucker) be manipulating her children for some unknown reason? Arguments are batted back and forth by Miriam’s reassuring attorney and Antoine’s insistent lawyer. Not entirely convinced either way, the judge decides to award the former couple with joint custody of their young son (Joséphine is on the verge of adulthood and spared of her father).
In interviews, Legrand has characterised ‘Custody’ as having as three acts: “Kramer vs Kramer, then The Night of the Hunter, and then The Shining”. The meat of the film follows the unsupervised visits between Julien and Antoine. Greeting his son with “hello, sweetheart” and a kiss on the forehead, Antoine picks the boy up at his father-in-law’s house. Julien doesn’t return his father’s affection and tries to maintain a cool distance, keeping his gaze locked forward in the passenger seat of the car or on the dinner table while visiting his father’s parents. In ‘Just Before Losing Everything’, Legrand let the audience figure out that Miriam was leaving her husband without any expository dialogue and ‘Custody’ also refuses to spoon-feed the viewer – gradually, we become aware that Miriam and her family are desperately trying to keep the location of their new home in the projects a secret from Antoine.
‘Custody’ isn’t a violent film, but a cloud of dread and impending violence (think Michael Haneke and Claude Chabrol) hovers over the film.
It’s during this ‘Night of the Hunter’ portion of the film that we watch an abuser relentlessly using the power of physical threat, trickery and emotional manipulation in an attempt to wheedle the location of his wife out of his son. Denis Ménochet, with his imposing stature, looms over Thomas Gioria, and his cold eyes give the impression of a malevolent entity lurking behind his round face.
Gioria’s wrenching performance is even more impressive - using only minimal dialogue, the young actor’s face flickers between anxiety, defiance, anger, fear and desperation as he begins to crumble under Antoine’s relentless interrogation.
‘Custody’ isn’t a violent film, but a cloud of dread and impending violence (think Michael Haneke and Claude Chabrol) hovers over the film. The film doesn't have a musical score and the silences - a pregnant pause in a conversation or muted footsteps in a darkened hallway - have an impact. Legrand keeps increasing the tension, with the boulder-like Antoine rolling towards the desperate family, picking up speed until disaster is certain to occur and the film enters its ‘The Shining’ of a final act...
Progressing from a courtroom to a kitchen sink drama, then to thriller before approaching outright horror, Xavier Legrand's ‘Custody’ is a powerful exploration of the aftermath of divorce and the trauma of abuse.