Custody is a superbly acted, terrifying domestic abuse drama by Xavier Legrand.
Tug of Warby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
The tortured exhausted face of a little boy in the centre of a custody battle stares out throughout Custody and wrenches the heartstrings. But it’s so much more than that. The film starts with the dialogue-heavy scene of a magistrate arbitrating between the boy’s estranged parents, trying to devise a shared custody arrangement for him, despite his statement imploring no access by his father. The magistrate – and at this stage, we too – can only make the decision on the contradictory facts that are in front of us, although the strained face of the mother, who has gone as far as to move towns to escape her husband, as the two sides’ lawyers debate speaks volumes. But so far, so justifiable – at least on paper. The horrifyingly violent reality of emotional and physical abuse is gradually revealed over the course of the film.
Director Xavier Legrand, a former actor, has achieved an extraordinary performance from Thomas Gioria as Julien. Forced to spend alternate weekends with his father, he’s an innocent pawn who’s shamelessly manipulated and bullied by him to get access to his mother. Denis Ménochet as the father, Antoine, is a burly hulk of barely repressed rage and menace that refuses to accept his wife Miriam (Léa Drucker) and children no longer wish to have anything to do with him because of his behaviour or to see how fearful they are of him. Though he’s able to put on a charming act for the magistrate, his violent, controlling nature that caused the break-up of his marriage becomes all too clear as the film develops and hints become reality.
Very naturalistically shot, the film creates the extended family structure around the core parents. Both sets of grandparents act as buffers between Antoine and Julien in to-ing and fro-ing between households. Big sister Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux) is 18 and a music student, so she’s spared from having to see her hated father, but she has her own issues in her own life and her boyfriend (Mathieu Saikaly). With growing dread, the film circles towards a terrifyingly tense and violent situation. Antoine is delusional, yet to him its love. An intensely suspenseful and horrific extended scene is an almost unbearable catharsis after a painful, inevitable chain of events. Custody is a superbly acted and directed, gut-wrenching portrayal of the reality of domestic abuse and its far-reaching effects, which follows the lives of the characters from Legrand’s short Just Before Losing Everything , though it more than stands alone.
Custody is released on 13 April 2018 in the UK.