Squeezed into a suit just one size too small for his thick frame, we first encounter Antoine in a court hearing as he is read a statement from his eleven-year-old son Julien. We hear of Julien’s fear of his father and his worry that he will hurt his mother. Sat next to Antoine; his estranged wife, Miriam, who is suing for full custody of the boy. Miriam’s lawyer tell the judge of how Antoine parks outside her house and sleeps in his car; his lawyer bats it back, arguing that he just wants to be near his children. As the verbal-tennis match of the court hearing ends and the plot moves away from the sanitised environment of the courthouse and into the grit of real-life, the humble father we met in the film’s first scene grows into the tyrant Julien’s statement describes.
Xavier Legrand’s feature length debut, Custody is a tense study of a family split by the towering presence of an abusive father, stretching increasingly taut until the eventual, inevitable, snap. Legrand was awarded the Silver Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival, and it is his tight direction which gets the best performances out of his cast, with particularly excellent performances from Denis Ménochet as Antoine and Thomas Gioria as the young boy, Julien, caught in the middle of his two warring parents. Josephine, the couple’s other child, is nearly eighteen: old enough to escape the brunt of the battle, whereas Julien, by order of the court, must spend every other weekend with his father. It is in these fortnightly drives from the relative comfort and safety of his mother to the unpredictability of his father that much of the film plays out.
…a taut portrayal of a family breaking apart, with the continual threat of violence constantly present in the background…
Ménochet absolutely excels as Antoine, a hulking physical presence who dominates the screen and presents a constant physical threat, alluded to throughout by past references to his treatment of the family. Throughout Custody, we catch glimpses of Antoine’s brutal nature: his hunting rifle is placed at the top of the pile of possessions in the back of his van, which Legrand shows us throughout the film. Like the principle of Chekhov’s gun, Legrand seems to tell the audience that this lingering presence of suggested violence can blow up at any point; as soon as we see the rifle the tension of the film ramps up. But the quality of Ménochet’s performance is not just in his physical presence and the simmering threat of a violent explosion of rage: he instead offers a nuanced presentation of a man whose actions have broken apart his family and torn him away from his children. Legrand also elicits a superb performance from Gioria, whose tortured portrayal illustrates immaculately Julien’s internal conflict between love and hatred for his father.
It is in one of Julien’s weekend visits that the plot turns itself over; mutating the battle between the parents from one of attrition, with Julien stranded in no-man’s-land, into one of mutual destruction. A mere slip of the tongue is enough to break through Antoine’s poorly constructed edifice of calm. Every other weekend, he picks up Julien from Miriam’s parents’ house, where he believes the three of them are living while they get back on their feet after the divorce. However, when Julien’s grandmother mentions how a family friend spotted him and Josephine at a tube stop far from where Antoine thinks they live, his simmering anger boils over. From then, the tension of the film’s first two acts explodes into a frantic third act.
The drama of this once-tight family unit splitting into fragments, then, is in the characters. Josephine is alienated not only from her father but from her mother as well, choosing instead to spend much of the film out of the house with her boyfriend. Crucially, Josephine is not present in the film’s final act, either. The epicentre of this family’s breakdown, Julien is the prize to be won in this custody battle, and certainly the trauma of this breakdown of the family can be seen etched onto his face. But it is in the figure of Antoine that we can see a tyrant overthrown – increasingly out of control of his son, he becomes more and more desperate in his attempts to undo the wrongs of the past.
In Custody, Xavier Legrand offers a taut portrayal of a family breaking apart, with the continual threat of violence constantly present in the background. The build-up of tension to breaking point; between estranged father and mother, over control of their eleven-year old son, is masterfully achieved through excellent character-acting in confined spaces: the sense of tension is escalated as the characters are forced ever more closely together. With its fist-clenchingly tense characterisation and explosive finale, Legrand’s study of a family in freefall is not to be missed.