Xavier Legrand’s debut feature-length, French language film Custody, which he has also written, is a continuation of his own 2013 short film, Just Before Losing Everything. The short film details the efforts of Miriam (Léa Drucker) to get herself and her children away from the husband and father and it is in the aftermath of the short film that Custody begins.
Starting with the custody hearing, the two opposing camps are engaged in a controlled war of words in an attempt to decide who their youngest child, 11-year-old Julien (Thomas Gioria), should live with and get to see. Their other child, Josephine (Mathilde Auneveux), is 18 years old and can make her own choice on who she sees, but Julien’s fate is left up to the decision of the courts and what goes on in this small room.
At this point you have no idea about who to root for, who is telling the truth and who is lying, although the statement taken from Julien is quite damning towards Antoine. Most of the talking is done by their respective legal counsel setting out their various positions for the judge to decide upon but Antoine (Denis Ménochet) projects himself as a calm, committed father whereas Miriam, on the other hand, is nervous and hardly speaks at all. After the hearing is over you could just as well believe that she has poisoned the children against their father as you could believe that he is a controlling tyrant.
From the off, this scene displays a level of direction that is to be applauded: placing Antoine in a room with five other women, as the only man, puts the audience into the mindset that Antoine is the outlier and the one being oppressed in this situation. This imposed indecision rather than the automatic assumption that it is the man in the wrong, certainly adds to the drama of the film as it progresses, and is further enforced when joint custody is awarded. Julien must spend alternate weekends with his father and on the first weekend collection Antoine is all happiness and light until Julien is back at Antoine’s family home: he ignores him, he treats him badly and appears to only be using Julien to get back to his wife, who as part of the separation has moved somewhere that Antoine doesn’t know and Antoine has no way of contacting or seeing her.
Slowly, we see Antoine being revealed for who he really is. The situation with Julien, who is trying his best to protect his mother by not divulging any information about their whereabouts, is a horrendous position to put a child but it becomes clear that Julien isn’t Antoine’s primary concern. Antoine’s behaviour becomes more and more obsessive and aggressive, eventually alienating himself from his own mother and father in the process.
Josephine is just starting out on her own adult life, and is mostly on the periphery of this story. She is involved with her boyfriend who is doing a good job of controlling her behaviour also, even if they are deeply in love. The tangle between Antoine and Miriam with Julien in the middle, places a huge weight on the young boy, which he shoulders with astounding maturity and composure. Thomas Gioria as Julien is just fantastic, for a first role he gets so much emotion and meaning across in his mannerisms and looks. It is a remarkable performance and you only really are reminded of how young he is towards the end of the film as he stands tall and strong in the face of real intimidation and the attempted cunning and plotting of Antoine to regain access to his wife.
The physical disparity between Antoine and Miriam is stark: he is a big, imposing man whilst she is very slight. Antoine dominates the scenes that he is in, especially when put into context by any of the other actors. You can feel the immense effort it takes for Miriam to stand strong against him in the opening court room scene and you really feel the threat that she feels in every interaction between the two, even just verbally.
The shocking revelation that in France, a woman dies at the hands of her live-in partner every three days, putting Custody squarely in the realm of fact rather than fiction. The dangers of obsessive behaviour are all too apparent here. The feeling of being wronged and the broken belief that Antoine’s family, his wife and children, are his to own and no-one can take those things away from him.
Custody is throughly engaging and the developments in the relationships and personalities, piece by piece, as Antoine claws his way ever closer back towards Miriam are totally devastating. It may be classed as a family drama but it does touch onto almost horror levels of intimidation and fear for Miriam and Julien as the finale approaches.
Xavier Legrand’s award-winning critically acclaimed debut feature Custody comes to DVD, Blu-ray and Digital today, 3 September 2018.