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There’s a unidirectional agony to this psychological drama from actor turned director Xavier Legrand – this is the much-talked-about festival prizewinner which Legrand developed from his 2013 short Avant Que De Tout Perdre, or Just Before Losing Everything. Legrand could have kept that title for his full-length feature version. It’s almost a story without a story, in that there is hardly any narrative progression as such, no phased revelation of character, no twist and counter-twist, and no point-of-view switches designed to raise queries about the truth. No: the focus is on one single horrible situation, getting steadily and unwatchably worse: a simmering pot of rage and toxic masculinity under which the gas-ring gets turned up and up. It concerns a divorce, and a legal hearing about custody.
Denis Ménochet plays Antoine, a glowering, heavy-set guy who is in dispute with his ex-wife Miriam (Léa Drucker) about custody of their 11-year-old son Julien (Thomas Gioria). The couple have an elder daughter Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux) who, being about to turn 18 and enter adulthood, does not form part of the case. The drama begins with a hearing in front of the judge (Saadia Bentaïeb) who must hear Miriam’s fears about Antoine’s violence and threats, although there is no clear legal evidence.
The case is settled by the judge in a way that surprises both parties. Now Antoine is allowed access to Julien, but not allowed to know Miriam’s address, to interfere with their household arrangements – and he certainly has no say in the matter of Julien acquiring a new stepfather. With icy rage, Antoine decides he has a right to know everything that’s going on and begins to turn the screw on his innocent, terrified son. The performances are frighteningly good – and without these performances, in fact, the film would have been merely blank or histrionic. This especially applies to Gioria as the young son, and more than any actor in a film I can remember, he conveys what emotional and physical abuse is like. Julien’s scenes with Antoine have to be watched between your fingers. Legrand shows how simply getting into his dad’s car and being driven by him is an unspeakable ordeal; there is a clever moment when the seatbelt alarm keeps pinging because Julien has failed, to his dad’s irritation, to buckle up. Later, Antoine will be too enraged to do it himself and the pinging becomes an ominous alarm system for his state of mind. Meanwhile, other family tensions are orbiting.
The film shows that a lot of Antoine’s macho rage and bullying derives from anger at his own father, Joël (Jean-Marie Winling). Miriam is also concerned that Joséphine’s education is about to be derailed by her possessive boyfriend, Samuel (Mathieu Saikaly), who seems charming enough – but Miriam knows how these things can turn out. And where are we going with all this? The temptation is to compare Custody with Asghar Farhadi’s modern classic A Separation. But they are quite different. Custody doesn’t have the subtlety or nuance of Farhadi’s film, nor is it quite like Joachim Lafosse’s divorce drama from 2016, L’Économie Du Couple, or After Love.
There are moments in the original custody hearing here which hint that blame may not be straightforward. But actually, blame is pretty straightforward, and it is incidentally a flaw of this film that it sticks very predictably to Chekhov’s rule about what happens to a firearm which is produced in act one. The film it resembles much more is something like Claude Chabrol’s L’Enfer, or Hell, from 1994, about a married man who simply descends into the horror of fanatical jealousy and paranoia. There is not much storytelling light and shade in Custody, but it has the shock and swipe of real life.
Source: The Guardian
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