Xavier Legrand is an actor and director whose Just Before Losing Everything was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. His first feature Custody, a powerful film which explores the anguish and anxiety caused by a violent father, won the Silver Lion at Venice last year. We caught up with Legrand to talk about film, the French legal system and how acting prepares you for life as a director.
Tom Duggins: Custody is an extension of a story that you already told in your 2013 short film Just Before Losing Everything, was it a challenge to return to a story that you’d already told so well the first time?
Xavier Legrand: Yes of course it was a challenge to go back to the same story and the same actors, but the original idea was to make three short films, and when I made the first film I already had the others planned out. After I made the first short, it became obvious to me that it would be better to make the other two parts as a feature film.
TD: So it felt like a natural next step?
XL: When I decided to make a film whose chief subject is domestic violence, I didn’t want to just settle for showing a woman escaping from that kind of situation. It was important to show how the difficulties continue after the separation. And particularly when children are caught up in divorce and domestic violence.
TD: The film shows how frustrating the legal system can be in handling cases of domestic abuse. Would you say there’s a campaigning element to the film?
XL: I wouldn’t say I’m campaigning because I’m a film-maker and my job is to tell stories. However, making films is about asking questions of the world and that’s what I’m doing.
TD: What questions in particular do you feel the film asks?
XL: The question asked by the film is – can a violent husband be a good father? In France, what the English term ‘domestic violence’ is called ‘conjugal violence’ and the idea is that the violence only affects the spouse, hence ‘conjugal’. Many judges and lawyers in France have therefore got the idea that if violence is only directed at the spouse, then their children won’t be in danger.
TD: The father, Anton, is called a loser a few times in the film. Should we feel sorry for him at all or is he beyond that?
XL: Well pity perhaps not, but it’s important to show that he’s not a monster, he’s a man. He’s unhappy, he’s not good at loving, things have gone badly for him. It’s important to show that he’s not just stupid, he’s a human being. Anton feels he’s rejected by everybody, he doesn’t recognise his own violence and so he feels that he is a victim.
TD: Anton seems like someone whose insecurities are manifesting in a completely toxic way. Is it possible to say he’s misunderstood or is his behaviour fundamentally unacceptable?
XL: It’s never acceptable, nothing justifies violence. Even if his wife had been cruel to him or cheated on him, nothing would justify it. The problem is that patriarchal society has told men that women belong to them, and men think that they can make that a reality through violence and control.
TD: Do you think films such as yours – which show these difficult, painful issues in society – can change the world in some way?
XL: Change the world no, but what film can do is to change the way we look at things and understand things. Film is there to entertain us but it’s also there to document things. The particular thing about film is that as we watch, we identify with the characters, so it educates us through emotion and not just theory.
TD: Are there any particular films that have changed the way you look at things?
XL: There’s a film called Parcours meurtrier d’une mère ordinaire about a woman who puts her newborn babies in a freezer, about women who deny their own pregnancy. It had a big effect on me, but it wasn’t released outside of France.
TD: Did you know that you wanted Léa Drucker and Denis Ménochet to reprise their roles from the first film?
XL: Originally, when I was planning to make three short films, then I was planning to have different actors playing three different couples. But once I’d decided to do it as a feature, then yes absolutely.
TD: I thought Thomas Gioria, who plays the son Julien, was very good. How did you find working with such a young actor, especially on a film covering such an intense subject?
XL: We spent a very long time preparing to do this film and developing a trust between Thomas and myself. The first thing was to find a child who really wanted to make the film and who had the maturity for this part. We spent a long time talking about the film and the violence in it, and we had to talk about it in a way that we were each using a language that the other could understand. We also had someone there on set just to look after Thomas to look after him and make sure he was OK. Thomas listens well, he’s talented, and he really stood out during casting.
TD: As an actor yourself, have you had that experience in front of the camera, of not trusting your director?
XL: Yes, my way of directing is very much built on my own experience of how I’ve been directed. On films where that trust isn’t there, between you and the director, it’s very difficult to work together.
TD: Do you have plans already for your next project?
XL: I’m going to be acting in the theatre next year as well as doing a film in June. I’ll also be writing my next film.
TD: Do you know what subject matter you’ll be tackling this time?
XL: Yes, I know.
TD: Can we expect something similar to Custody or something quite different?
XL: It will be different, but I’m keeping it a secret for now.
Xavier Legrand’s Custody is released in UK cinemas from Friday 13 April.