Director: Xavier Legrand
Stars: Denis Ménochet, Léa Drucker, Thomas Gioria
While I have tried to avoid outright plot spoilers, I recommend seeing the film before reading the review in this instance.
This striking debut feature from Xavier Legrand is being sold – quite deliberately – as a modest kitchen sink drama, one liable to draw only a select crowd as foreign language films of its ilk tend to. The blankly telling title Custody, coupled with a trailer showing a family in civil war, give a strong but ultimately misleading impression of what unfolds. Legrand’s film is a familial drama, but it is also a disguised genre piece; an oppressive little horror movie that is all too believable.
Starting with a wordy hearing in which recent history is extensively detailed, we meet Miriam (Léa Drucker) and Antoine (Denis Ménochet), meeting in the company of their representatives to discuss the custody of their youngest, timid-natured Julian (Thomas Gioria). The marriage has broken down. Antoine denies culpability, but Miriam’s story implies an increasingly threatening record of intimidation from her former partner. He sits, barrel-chested, with testimonials from work colleagues that praise his calm nature, but still we’re left feeling wary of him from the get-go.
Miriam’s representative calls the process ‘gruelling’, and it’s easy to chart the trajectory of Legrand’s film ahead of its telling, but to do so might well lead you astray. Emotions are raw here and tears plentiful, but Custody goes beyond the assumed misery-porn of its premise by instilling in the audience the same fear of Antoine that is felt by Miriam and Julian.
Denis Ménochet’s hulking and surly performance as Antoine accomplishes much of this, but the other players here are just as key. Tired eyes and skittish reactions imply gravity at every turn. See Mathilde Auneveux’s work as elder daughter Joséphine, whose 18th birthday party seems fated to be the scene of some kind of cataclysmic confrontation.
This prevailing sense of doom is what starts to set Custody apart from so many other indie dramas, and as the film continues Legrand reveals that he has set his pieces just-so. He stages a series of suspenseful real-time sequences – happening out in public – in which Antoine looses sight of any better angels he might once have known, letting his anger and frustration steer. We’re asked – easily – to empathise with fearful young Julian and waife-like Miriam. Through their eyes, he is a monster as effective as any horror movie villain, and akin to one in particular.
There’s a strong whiff of The Shining to Custody, albeit with virtually all of the identifiable horror signatures removed. At its heart this is a pulse-racing and tense vision of what happens when the family unit disintegrates and turns on itself. To that end Custody feels perpetually threatening. At 93 minutes, it’s a tight little piece, but one that feels like quite the ordeal once the credits start crawling.
But where Jack Torrance was the victim of alcoholism and the whispers of ghosts at his ear, Antoine is a construction of the kind of toxic masculinity that society is trying to shed. Dismissing any suggestion that he might need help, and with only a loose association to his own parents (the nature of which seems steeped in denial), Ménochet turns the man into a beast who will only comply with his own rudimentary impulses. It makes him even scarier; there’s no reasoning with the unreasonable.
Locks and keys litter Custody, and one family home features a prominent garden gate that resembles a cell door. There are a series of prisons in this film, both geographical and emotional. In geographical terms, Legrand impresses with his staging, grounding his well-orchestrated threats within relatable locales. He also trusts in darkness, using negative spaces and unknowns to his advantage. Not seeing is played on to great effect, and the power of these scenes may find themselves diminished when viewed outside of a pitch-dark cinema space.
Once Custody reaches its resolution, there’s no time for a coda, and really little need for one. Legrand has put you through the wringer, and revealed in the process that this was the intention all along. There’s something to be said for underlining masculine behaviours which have no place in a progressive society; the warnings to look for; the messages not being received… but more pronounced is the sensation that Custody is first and foremost intended as a sneak attack, and a respectable one at that.