In a bleak magistrate's court in France, the lawyers of estranged couple Miriam (Lea Drucker) and Antoine (Denis Menochet) debate their clients' parental rights before the presiding judge. Miriam is seeking sole custody of their 11-year-old son Julien (Thomas Gioria), citing Antoine's violence and intimidation, including against Julien's sister Josephine who is old enough to decide for herself where to live. Julien has provided a letter for the court saying that he does not want to see his father.
No convincing evidence of violence is put before the court and Antoine appears humiliated and puzzled by the allegations. His lawyer defends him energetically, presenting him as a model of solid dependability and citing character references from his hunting club (a clue, perhaps?). Miriam appears brittle and ill at ease and avoids any eye contact with Antoine. All the while Natalie Durand's camera holds us at a deliberate distance from its subjects.
This low-key opening of 'Custody' establishes theatre-actor-turned-director Xavier Legrand as a meticulous, highly visual storyteller. In common with the Iranian Oscar-winner, 'A Separation,' the first 15 minutes of Legrand's film play out in real time, as a procedural legal custody hearing. This mood of cool restraint gradually shifts into something much more tense and tonally dark, reflecting how, for those French women murdered by their partners/ex-partners at a rate of almost one every two days, banal routine exists alongside paralysing fear.
Emmanuel Macron has said that domestic violence is 'France's shame' and has pledged to make the issue a priority of his presidency. Legrand's preparation for his film included attending family court hearings and reading transcripts of trials. Such research fuels his belief that France lags behind other countries in terms of child protection.
Legrand explored the issue of domestic abuse once before, in his Oscar-nominated short 'Just Before Losing Everything' (2013). This featured the same characters as 'Custody', as well as its two principal actors. Focusing on Miriam as she is about to flee her marriage with her two children, 'Just Before Losing Everything,' at just half an hour long, depicts more or less in real time the last few moments before she escapes her abusive husband. 'Custody' continues Miriam's story. It offers no flashbacks to the earlier short whereas a less subtle director might have interposed flashbacks during the custody hearing.
The point of the film's distanced, chilly opening sequence is precisely to put us in the same position as the presiding judge who is not privy to the couple's history and has to decide on the basis of evidence presented who to believe.
Cut to a few days later when we witness a tense reunion between a stiffly reluctant Julien and his father. The judge has rejected Miriam's request and given Antoine the benefit of the doubt by granting him weekend access to his son. Any sympathy we might feel for Antoine at the boy's shrinking rejection of him gradually dispels as the film moves inch by inch away from the objective naturalism of the opener into nerve-shredding full-blown horror akin to Stanley Kubrick's 'The Shining.' Rather than Jack Nicholson, Menochet's performance reminded me much more of Robert Mitchum's chilling act as the sinister stepfather of two young children in Charles Laughton's 'The Night of the Hunter' (1955). Whenever Menochet is on screen his bulky presence seems to push his wife and son to the very edge of the frame.
By means of a few increasingly anxiety-producing set pieces, flawlessly executed by the three central characters, we gradually see that Antoine is driven by possessive rage rather than love for his son. Despite being rejected by everyone in his immediate family (even his parents throw him out when they witness his behaviour towards their grandson) he still sees himself as a victim. His manipulative efforts to make his son reveal where his mother lives, and Julien's shame at his inability to oppose his father, are sickening. First-time actor Thomas Gioria gives an astonishing performance that brilliantly captures the corporeal nature of Julien's fear. Visibly shrinking in his presence, the boy has learned never to look at his father directly and to go limp at any physical contact.
Legrand's own experience as a child actor in Louis Malle's 'Au Revoir Les Enfants' (1987) may have helped him coax such an uncannily nuanced performance from the newcomer. Malle's film set a high standard of performance from actors of roughly Gioria's age, which few directors succeed in reaching. Julien's face, captured in close-up cowering against his father's car window, is etched with misery as he experiences emotional assault upon emotional assault with gut-wrenching conviction. Bullying his son for information on the whereabouts of his ex-wife's new home, Antoine asks, 'Are you happy now?' – blaming the child for his vicious outburst.
Only painstakingly careful scripting and repeated rehearsal could produce the seemingly spontaneous, unfiltered feel of this movie, coupled with the supreme talent of Legrand's entire cast whose performances, however peripheral, are excellent. Yorgis Lamprinos's brisk, taut editing lends Legrand's uncluttered storytelling a relentless momentum, relaxing only occasionally to allow longer shots of Miriam and her children as they enjoy themselves at Josephine's 18th birthday party. In Antoine's absence the family is unrecognisable as the careful, watchful people we have so far encountered.
By placing a child at the centre of a domestic battlefield, Legrand explodes the notion of a 'crime of passion' with its implicit notion of shared culpability. Dispensing with a musical score and using only ambient sound to ratchet up the tension, 'Custody' is a masterclass in restraint that only falters in its shattering denouement – a slight mis-step that is forgivable in light of Legrand's grand project of creating a Greek tragedy for our times.
Custody received two well-deserved awards at the recent Venice Film Festival: Best Director and the 'Lion of the Future' Award for best debut