Directed by: Xavier Legrand
Starring: Léa Drucker, Denis Ménochet, Thomas Gloria, Mathilde Auneveux
We begin in an anonymous French hearing room. Miriam (Léa Drucker) and Antoine (Denis Ménochet) are there for a custody trial. Miriam has not allowed Antoine to see their 12-year-old son Julien (Thomas Gloria) since he physically attacked their grown daughter; Antoine denies the attack ever took place. After some lawyerly back and forth, and an agonising wait for Miriam, the judge awards joint custody.
For much of the first act, Custody keeps us guessing as to which parent is in the right. We see the court case before we see Antoine and Miriam in their natural environments, and so we only have the legal arguments, and our own intuition, to go on. In that way, we are cleverly put in the same position as the judge. Once we have left the trial however, it doesn’t take long to see that Miriam and Julien are truly petrified of Antoine. And for good reason.
Custody is the feature directorial debut of Xavier Legrand. It serves as a sequel-of-sorts to his Oscar-winning short film Just Before Losing Everything, which follows Miriam as she initially leaves her abusive husband. Drucker, Ménochet, and Mathilde Auneveux (who plays Joséphine, the couple’s older daughter), all appear in both the short and the feature.
Legrand got his start in the movie business as a child actor in Louis Malle’s classic Au Revoir Les Enfants, and perhaps thanks to his personal experience, he extracts a wonderful performance from young Thomas Gloria.Much of the film’s effectiveness stems from the juxtaposition of Gloria and Ménochet; a tiny, terrified presence against a huge, terrifying one. Legrand often places father and son in claustrophobic confines to emphasise just how scary Antoine is, particularly to a little boy. Between the violent outbursts, Ménochet plays Antoine with a dead-eyed stillness, which only serves to make him more frightening. You never know when he’s going to erupt.
Rather than using quick cuts and dramatic music to build intensity, Legrand opts for a naturalistic approach. Clearly trusting his actors, he lets takes run long, and ramps up the tension by letting the characters know a little more than we do; the opposite of dramatic irony.
The best example of this comes near the end, at a birthday party for Joséphine. It’s the one scene in the movie where there is music, courtesy of Joséphine’s band, who are performing in front of a noisy, cheery group of their friends and family. A text is received, and although we don’t see what it says, it’s obvious how much it scares Joséphine and Miriam. By the time we discover what the text was about, the tension has become almost too much to bear.
All this leads up to the big finale, which is one of the most gripping, gruelling movie scenes in recent memory. Combining extreme close-ups, long takes, and low-key lighting, Legrand conjures up a sequence of such heightened human terror that when it’s over, you may just find yourself curled up in your cinema seat, trembling. I know I did.
It’s a magnificent, haunting scene; a fitting capper to a riveting movie. Xavier Legrand is one to watch, that’s for sure.