Film Review: Custody

Supremely crafted and performed contemporary French thriller about a broken marriage and ensuing custody battle is a gripping, edge-of-seat drama that never lets up.
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Yes, there are no glaring attention grabbers among cast and crew names in writer-director Xavier Legrand’s stunning Custody, nor hint of any intriguing twist in its familiar story of a marital meltdown and aftermath. But Legrand, whose Oscar-nominated short Just Before Losing is this film’s “companion piece,” belies such prejudices.

Already a fest circuit prize-winner (two awards at Venice), Custody embodies Legrand’s attention to detail, reverence for gripping storytelling, command of tension and, above all, direction of finely etched performances for characters major and minor. It is simmering entertainment that amounts to required viewing.

Unfolding in a nondescript urban Burgundy town, the film begins with an avalanche of dialogue (and only a few pregnant pauses) as working-class couple Antoine (Denis Ménochet, quietly endowing his character with dark complexity) and Miriam (a fine Léa Drucker), separated for a year and now about to divorce, sit together in a judge’s office to determine custody of their two children.

Conflicts quickly crystalize as the stern, emotionless judge (Saadia Bentaïeb) hears testimony from husband and wife, both accompanied by their lawyers (Sophie Pincemaille as Miriam’s reassuring attorney and Émilie Incerti-Formentini as Antoine’s insistent lawyer). Immediately evident in the conference is that neither sibling—11-year-old Julien (a remarkable Thomas Gioria), especially, nor Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux), a music conservatory student a few days away from celebrating her 18th birthday—wants time with Antoine.

Anecdotes of his abuse emerge in the discussions, mollified by Antoine’s or his lawyer’s countering comments. Antoine, claiming that Miriam has turned the children against him, has relocated back to the town for a new hospital job so he can be near his kids. He cares, he loves them, and he wants permission to see them weekends. Julien, he insists, can only benefit by having a father in his life.

Claims of Antoine’s misbehavior are more subjective than evidentiary and the judge, unsure of who is telling the truth, remains undecided and adjourns the conference. Her judgment for joint custody follows without fanfare. But it’s a small victory for Antoine, as he will have Julien on alternating weekends. As for Joséphine, she’s on the verge of adulthood and, spared of her father, she can finish her music degree, prepare for her big birthday party in a few days and carry on with boyfriend musician Samuel (Mathieu Saïkaly) in a relationship of which Antoine disapproves.

Miriam and both children have been living with her mother, but Miriam soon finds a roomy apartment in the projects, a secret she keeps from Antoine as she wants no contact with him whatsoever.

The first weekend has Antoine picking up Julien at his grandmother’s. The boy, obviously unhappy and tense, sits silently next to his father as Dad tries to pry information from his son. They drive to Antoine’s parents’ place, where the newly re-arrived man is temporarily living.

Julien is clearly more comfortable with his petit-bourgeois grandparents, who seem decent folk. As Antoine and his parents converse, his father refers to their shared love of hunting and his mother, gossiping about family friends, mentions that one caught a glimpse of Joséphine going into the projects. Antoine, kept from knowing Miriam’s phone number, is now suspicious about where she and his kids are actually living. As Antoine grows more and more eager to reconnect with Miriam, Julien becomes increasingly squeezed in the middle.

Having bargained aggressively with Julien, Antoine now knows where Miriam lives and shows up there, sobbing, to beg forgiveness. Miriam doesn’t relent. Back at his parents’ home, a bitter feud erupts between Antoine and his father, resulting in Antoine’s banishment.

That night is Joséphine’s big birthday bash in a simple rented hall. Warmth and merriment fill the room as Joséphine and Samuel lead a back-up band in a rousing version of pop classic “Proud Mary.” Much follows, as the film’s slow boil grows hotter and yields unexpected results.

Custodygrabs interest from frame one and never lets go. What impresses most are the power of its silences (the film isn’t scored) and performances both large and small. Ménochet and Gioria are both knockouts in their father and son roles. And if young Gioria doesn’t grow his Julien character into one like the great Jean-Pierre Léaud’s iconic Antoine Doinel (The 400 Blows), at least Custody suggests the acting chops that Léaud, still working, displayed.

The film’s ending will surprise viewers, but they won’t be surprised to learn that Legrand counts among his influences Hitchcock, Haneke, Chabrol and Kubrick.

Click here for cast and crew information.