tue 22/10/2019

Custody review - unflinching and masterful | reviews, news & interviews

Custody review - unflinching and masterful

Custody review - unflinching and masterful

Brilliant family drama heralds a new voice in French cinema

Thomas Gioria is brilliant as Julien, a child caught between warring parents

Divorce proceedings turn sour in this devastating debut from writer/director Xavier Legrand. Using the full palette of human behaviour, Custody expertly balances high tension and grounded realism to create a timely and lingering film.

We start at a custody hearing for a child, Julien (Thomas Gioria, main picture), his parents sitting silently as counsellors read opposing statements. The mother, Miriam (Léa Drucker), is stoically still as her unsubstantiated claims of an abusive husband are read out; next to her is the accused Antoine (Denis Ménochet, pictured below), a hulking but subdued man, bemused by the allegations and desperate for access to his son. Their stories do not match, so the judge asks who is lying.

As with much in life, the answer is far from clear. Julien dreads the intense weekends with his father, who constantly puts his son in the middle of the divorce. He’s interrogated for information about his mother’s whereabouts and arrangements, with Antoine convinced that Miriam is turning the children against him. Julien in turn passes on false information, only compounding suspicions when the truth comes out.Denis Ménochet in CustodyIt is by no means an easy watch, but Custody is intensely gripping. Antoine is a volatile and paranoid bully, so convinced that he’s the victim that he is blind to the damage he’s causing. Miriam’s cold distance drives him to extremes, yet it is the only way to stop him controlling the family’s lives. The film is a direct sequel to Legrand’s Oscar-winning short Just Before Losing Everything, but you don’t need prior knowledge to enjoy Custody – indeed trying to square the characters with the opening descriptions is what makes the film so engaging.

All three leads are astonishing. Ménochet’s looming frame sulks across the screen like a wounded beast, at once vulnerable and dangerous, while Léa Drucker stands tall as a mother desperately trying to stay strong for her children’s safety. However, it is Thomas Gioria as son Julien who truly stands out. In his presence, the camera rarely strays from his face, capturing every minute detail of a vulnerable boy caught in a crossfire.

It is a film that relies on the subtlety of its performances, and the tensions when they come together. As a debut feature from Xavier Legrand, it is masterful. Scenes are expertly drawn out, combining long shots, extreme close-ups and points of view to build the pressure to boiling point. Every time Antoine stops his van, you begin to expect another interrogation as a Pavlovian response. The groundwork laid throughout the film makes the fever-pitch finale feel inevitable but shocking, almost earned.

Custody begins with the question, “Is Antoine the violent man described”? Its answer is all the more complicated, but necessary. This is not a black and white depiction of abuse; it shows the real threat that a woman and child can feel from a volatile and controlling man. When Antoine sees he is losing power, he resorts to intimidation and manipulation. Legrand makes sure to show that while Antoine’s actions are wrong, you can understand why he does them. From a smaller person, they might appear pathetic, but here they are terrifying. The film immediately places you in the shoes of his victims, and there’s never been a better time to tell such a story.


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