In 2013, writer/director Xavier Legrand made a short film called Just Before Losing Everything, about a woman attempting to extract herself and two children from what she felt was a deeply unhealthy marriage. The escape is about as tense and precisely executed as any action film or thriller you’ll ever see, and the work deservedly received a Best Live Action Short Academy Award nomination.
With Legrand’s latest work (his feature debut), Custody, he reunites most of the primary cast from the short to give us the aftermath of the escape, including a custody battle over the couple’s son, the mother’s attempt to find a new apartment for her family, and attempts by the former husband to visit and talk to his ex-wife that begin as mildly threatening and escalate into something much darker.
Miriam (Léa Drucker) and Antoine (Denis Ménochet) begin the film face-to-face for the first time in weeks, in front of a mediator charged with determining the issue of custody of their son Julien (Thomas Gioria), who has made it clear he wants nothing to do with his father. Since daughter Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux) is already 18, she can decide on her own what her future relationship with her dad will be, and it’s clear that she feels the same as the rest of her family. In truth, she is far more interested in sneaking around with her musician boyfriend (Mathieu Saikaly) than anything her family is involved in.
The mediation sequence gives us an update on a great deal that has happened since the short film, and when claims of stalking and even physical violence by Antoine are refuted with wildly different accounts of the same incidents, even the judge wonders aloud who the biggest liar is between the two. If you believe them both, she’s crazy, kidnapped them and won’t allow him any access to his kids, while he is a seething monster with a hair-trigger temper and jealous suspicions running through his veins. We’re left wondering if either version of these descriptions is true, or perhaps some combination of the two. The scene is genuinely unpleasant and is likely how many such meetings go in real life.
There’s a fleeting moment in the middle of the film where it does seem that Antoine is trying to get his head on straight enough to reconnect with his son. The father has moved in with his elderly parents so he can be closer to where his ex- and their kids live, he’s about to start a new job, and get himself a new apartment with room for visitors, should he be granted some type of joint custody. Antoine is an imposing figure with hangdog eyes that always seem on the verge of welling up with tears. But the stories we hear about him and the trembling reaction Julien has when he’s in his father’s presence are powerful indicators of something else behind those eyes.
The fact that director Legrand (who won the Silver Lion for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival for the movie) has said in interviews that Custody’s influences range from Kramer vs. Kramer to The Shining and The Night of the Hunter should give you some indication where things eventually head in this nerve-shattering drama, but it’s getting to that point that makes for some of the film’s most fascinating moments. There are moments where it does appear that Miriam’s extreme attempts to keep Antoine completely out of their lives is driving him to desperate acts. But every time she gives in to one of his seemingly reasonable demands for a chance to talk to her or a brief glimpse of his son, he clamors to gain more and more ground, until it’s clear that Antoine wants little more than to simply disrupt her life forever.
I’m still not sure how I feel about the final act of the film, which essentially turns an intense family drama into an outright horror movie, but it’s certainly a conclusion I didn’t see coming and am unlikely to forget soon. Drucker and Ménochet give two remarkable performances, but the face that is seared into my brain belongs to young Gioria, whose desperate, panicked, wounded expressions make the rest of the film resonate. Whatever the outcome of Custody, we know that Julien is the true victim and will be scarred for life by the fear he has of his father. This is not an easy journey, but it is a truly satisfying one.
The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
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