A directorial debut is always a difficult thing: wanting to craft something original, attempting to make a strong cinematic impression that’ll signal the arrival of a new talent worthy of attention. Luckily for newcomer Xavier Legrand, he’s achieved both of the above with Custody, an excellent first effort that elegantly handles the challenging yet relevant issue of domestic abuse with a hefty smack of emotional horror.
In Custody, we meet estranged couple Miriam (Léa Drucker) and Antoine Besson (Denis Ménochet) in the midst of their divorce negotiations, trying to come to a settlement on the custody of their children, Julien (Thomas Gioria) and Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux). What starts as a reasonably diplomatic discussion, erupts post-conference into a fierce and furious succession of fiery confrontations between Antoine and his family, as he refuses to accept the situation and attempts to implement his own forceful authority on proceedings.
So while its opening sequence seems to set-up a second serving of Robert Benton’s Kramer vs Kramer, the following film instead resembles something akin to The Shining as directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. And in Antoine, Xavier Legrand has his Jack Torrance, a realistically realised yet ruthless figure, always threatening to unload a flurry of fists against those he supposedly loves. He’s a terrifying tormentor, but one that is subtly played to perfection: actor Denis Ménochet, of Inglorious Basterds fame, grounds his performance in respect to the serious subject matter, never veering towards parodic excess.
Léa Drucker and Thomas Gioria deliver some fine work here as well, particularly in relation to the themes in flux within the film. Drucker doesn’t make a damsel-in-distress out of Miriam: Legrand’s screenplay offers her a more complex dynamic with Antoine, as opposed to a formulaic victimiser/victimised binary. Instead, in her scenes with Ménochet, Drucker exudes a controlled temperament, holding back her anger for the sake of her children: it’s never made explicit, but certainly adds to Miriam’s motherly motives. Gioria also joins Loveless’ Matvey Novikov on the list of 2018’s stand-out child performers, providing a petrified complexion that brutally conveys the extent to which Antoine’s antagonism has affected those around him.
It’s in the intensity of the sequences that show this violent side of Antoine, that the film truly shines. DOP Natalie Durand achieves this by opting for a greater mobility in her camerawork, helped along by a tendency towards longer takes that help amplify Antoine’s inexorable pursuit of his children. Legrand’s direction is superlative in this regard. He maintains a happy medium between the social realist filmmaker’s predilection for all things long take, and the adrenaline-kicking kinesis of psychological thrillers such as The Shining. It’s a clever yet underplayed motif that constitutes a delicate directorial touch from Legrand, a welcome approach in this era of blunt blockbuster filmmaking.
It must be said that Custody does not re-invent the social realist wheel: it lacks the experimental conviction of films such as Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine or Andreas Dresen’s Halbe Treppe. Furthermore, it doesn’t take the bold move to commentate on its key themes beyond the contained narrative: one might look to revered Russian filmmaker Andrey Zviagintsev for a film, such as the aforementioned Loveless, that successfully taps into a critical mind-set on society’s misgivings.
And yet, Custody is still a powerful display of directorial vigour that places the distresses of domestic abuse front and centre. Legrand is unafraid to turn the camera-eye away from circumstances that we like to tell ourselves couldn’t, or shouldn’t possibly happen. But in our current cultural climate, it’s more imperative now than ever before that we face these images and confront their prominence within our reality. With the traumatic filmmaking and powerful performances exhibited here, Custody is a good place to start in terms of facing those harsh truths.
Dir: Xavier Legrand
Prd: Alexandre Gavras
Scr: Xavier Legrand
Cast: Léa Drucker, Denis Ménochet, Thomas Gioria, Mathilde Auneveux
DOP: Natalie Durand
Custody is in UK cinemas on the 13th April 2018