In France, a woman dies every two and a half days as a result of domestic violence. Xavier Legrand’s feature debut, Custody, a hard-hitting social drama and winner of the Silver Lion, attempts to raise awareness of this harrowing subject through the powerful medium of cinema.
Legrand builds on his Oscar nominated short Just Before Losing Everything (2013) and features the same characters. Custody begins with a claustrophobic scene between divorced couple Miriam (Léa Drucker) and Antoine (Denis Ménochet). Miriam is seeking sole custody of their young son Julien (an astonishing debut from Thomas Gioria) and claims that Antoine is violent. This is backed up by Julien’s written testimony. Filmed in real-time, the tension between the pair is palpable. Drucker, in particular, is adept at conveying the turmoil of her emotions – she looks stoical but her wary eyes betray her fear. Antoine is persuasive as the wronged father. Legrand’s tight framing ensures that the spectator’s perspective is that of the judge for the duration of the hearing.
The magistrate’s decision is conveyed a few days later and Antoine is awarded joint custody. His student daughter Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux) is old enough to make her own choice and she steers clear of him. Although convincing in the courtroom, Antoine drops all pretence when he starts picking up his son for weekend visits. His bullying leaves Julien frequently distraught and it soon becomes clear that Antoine wants only to know where Miriam has moved to. His obsession knows no bounds and he is increasingly unable to contain his emotions. After he falls out with his father – both men display formidable tempers – Legrand ratchets up the tension with devastating consequences for Miriam and Julien.
The children respond in different ways to their parents’ breakup. Joséphine is in love with her boyfriend Samuel and wants to abandon her studies and escape the family tensions while Julien is relentlessly anxious. Legrand seamlessly shifts mood and register between the two. He is almost playful in a terrific scene where Joséphine carries out a pregnancy test and we discover the result without ever seeing her face or the kit. Her yearning to escape with Samuel is in sharp contrast to her brother’s distress, which is often unbearable to watch. While Joséphine is intent on fleeing her dysfunctional family (in order to prematurely begin her own), Julien cannot leave and feels obliged to try to protect his mother.
The psychology of fear is Legrand’s main thrust in Custody although he claims that three films guided his writing: Kramer vs. Kramer, Night of the Hunter and The Shining. Dread dominates his final scenes – Legrand substitutes Hitchcock’s shower and knife wielding psychopath with a bathtub and a gun-toting maniac to great effect. Claustrophobic and brutal, this is an impressive debut and heralds Legrand as a major talent to watch.
Lucy Popescu | @lucyjpop