When it comes to debut films, this is about as good as it gets. This emotionally powerful and prescient family drama from French director Xavier Legrand should leave you reeling, such is the tension that he draws from a scenario that is, unfortunately, far too familiar for women and children around the world. Legrand creates an atmosphere of unrelenting unease that builds to a conclusion that is no less frightening despite its inevitability. As the title suggests, Custody is about exactly that, however Legrand executes the dispute over parental rights as a quiet, brutal, relentless psychological thriller as 10-year-old Julien (Thomas Gioria) finds himself at the centre of a vicious legal struggle. Even the most amicable parental separation can be traumatic, but this particular split is far from cordial with Julien the pawn in a bitter battle between parents Antoine (Denis Ménochet) and Miriam (Léa Drucker).
The film opens with an extended scene in which Antoine and Miriam are at a custody hearing. Antoine is seeking joint custody, a request to which Miriam strongly objects and, through her lawyer, outlines the reason why she wants to deny Antoine access to Julien, which includes accusations of violence against her and their older daughter Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux). Of course, Antoine’s legal representative denies such claims and declares that Julien, who has submitted a written statement declaring that he wants nothing to do with his father, has been unduly influenced by his mother. Of course, at this stage of proceedings, it is impossible for us to know how much truth, or otherwise, is coming from either party, although it is clear that Julien’s statement was largely, if not completely, ignored in reaching a decision.
It isn’t long before Antoine’s motivations for shared custody are revealed as being as much about securing access to Miriam – and a delusional expectation of being welcomed back into the fold – than it is about spending time with Julien. Prone to bursts of rage, Antoine uses physical and psychological intimidation to coax information out of his son and Gioria delivers an astonishingly accomplished performance as Julien, the unwitting and undeserving target of his father’s emotional irrationality. More than any young actor in a film of recent memory, young Gioria conveys what emotional and physical abuse is like; simply getting into his dad’s car instils dread within him. In fact, all of the actors deliver in spades to make this a remarkably resonant exploration of family breakdown and the systemic shortcomings that often result in the worst possible outcomes for families. Ménochet’s considerable physical presence combines with the overwhelming indignation his character feels to invoke the sense of menace that Antoine exhibits, while Drucker’s Miriam is perhaps the most complicated character in that she, despite knowing the system has failed her and somewhat resigned to her own fate, remains determined to protect her family.
Whilst the screenplay, which was also written by Legrand, dishes up some great dialogue for the various players to sink their teeth into, it is the quieter moments that prove some of the best, such as a lengthy scene in which Miriam and Julien cower in the dark as Antoine takes his harassment to the next level. Given the current efforts to curb domestic violence, Custody serves as a timely reminder of the failings of a system that seems to disregard the wishes of children caught in the middle of such disputes. Furthermore, a tendency to blame women for the predicaments in which they find themselves is also emphasised when the veracity of Miriam’s accusations of violence against Antoine are called into question simply because she had not previously taken action against her husband. Then again, victim-blaming still remains a default position for many when the alternative is holding men accountable for their actions. Some might find it hard to enjoy given the nature of what transpires, but it is certainly easy to appreciate what Legrand has achieved in expanding his 2013 short film Just Before Losing Everything. With terrific turns from all of the key players, Custody is an emotionally bruising exploration of family violence, toxic masculinity, jealousy and paranoia.