Making its way to this year’s TIFF following an award-winning debut at the Venice Film Festival, French director Xavier Legrand’s Custody is a powerful domestic drama of a toxic father who continues to terrorise his family following an unsavoury marital separation.
The minute we meet Antoine (Denis Ménochet), there’s a sense of menace. He sits beside his lawyer as he and his soon to be ex-wife Miriam (Léa Drucker) seek arbitration on the custody of their youngest son following their split-up. The judge twice has to tell him to be quiet as he mutters to his lawyer. A statement is read from his young son Julian (Thomas Gioria), who writes openly of his terror of ‘that man’ and how he never wants to see him again. There is talk of threats, intimidation and even violence, but Antoine contends that he is wronged, abandoned and all he wants is to see his children.
Legrand’s screenplay gives us very little exposition except through these official channels and what we glean from the behaviour of various family members. Miriam’s grandparents keep the doors carefully locked when Antoine – who has won weekend custody rights – comes to pick up his terrified son. And yet Nathalie Durand’s camera sticks close on Julian’s trembling face. We see every flinch, the terror and sadness of the boy, as the world shrinks to a small ball of misery. Meanwhile Miriam is trying to rebuild her life. She has a boyfriend and a new place to stay. Her almost-graduated daughter Josephine (Mathilde Auneveux) is in a relationship and would benefit from a little more attention from her mum, but Miriam is coming out of an obviously traumatic situation.
All four main performances are magnificent. The drama could not be more heightened, as Antoine’s narcissistic self-pity turns to rage, but the actors maintain an all too credible naturalism. Ménochet deserves particular applause, although his monstrous father is so humanly despicable that as an audience member you can’t help hating the very look of the actor. Antoine is petulant and needy, a hulking man-child who will be by turns cloyingly affectionate and then sociopathically dismissive. Antoine tinges everything with the poison of his own contempt, whether it is a dinner at his parents or in hitting the speed bumps in his white van.
Even when he’s not there, his presence is felt. Josephine’s birthday party is a moment of celebration and rare joy, as she and her boyfriend let rip with a rock and roll song and everyone dances. But there’s still a threat that dad might turn up and genuine panic when they lose sight of Julian. With Custody, Legrand has created a family drama that plays out as social realism, but it is as intense as a thriller and, with no generic get outs, far more terrifying than Kubrick’s The Shining.