2018, NR, 93 min. Directed by Xavier Legrand. Starring Léa Drucker, Denis Ménochet, Thomas Gioria, Mathilde Auneveux.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Aug. 3, 2018
Spousal and parental abuse is not just physical; it's the psychological strain that's just as galling and damaging. Yet, as portrayed in writer/director Xavier Legrand's assured and measured first feature Custody, one is often a prelude or companion to the other. The opening sequence is pure he said, she said in a French family court hearing, as a judge takes evidence from both sides in what is clearly an unpleasant divorce proceeding. Antoine Besson (tough guy Ménochet, best known to American audiences for Inglourious Basterds) looks outgunned, the only man in the room, and shot down every time he opens his mouth by the lawyer for his soon-to-be-ex-wife Miriam (Drucker). He cuts a semi-sympathetic figure, and the judge rules that he should have parental access to his son Julien (Gioria) – their elder daughter Joséphine (Auneveux) being ruled mature enough to decide whether she wants contact or not. In a blunt foreshadowing of what is to come, she doesn't.
From the evidence presented – especially a written statement from Julien that sounds like Miriam coached him – this seems like a reasonable judgment. But Legrand's script quickly reveals that Antoine is just using Julien to keep a fingerhold in Miriam's life. He's a manipulator, but not a cunning evil genius, à la Patrick Bergin in Sleeping With the Enemy. He's just intimidating, with a knack for cruelty toward those weaker than him.
Building on his 2014 Oscar-nominated short "Just Before Losing Everything," Legrand delicately pieces together a portrait of a family fractured beyond repair, and it's Ménochet's nuanced depiction of Antoine – a short-fuse thug, a terrible son, and a worse father and husband – that gives Custody its crystal clarity. His performance is a case study of the difference between empathy and sympathy: We understand Antoine as more than a cartoon bully, but that doesn't make him any more likable. His control and abuse of Julien as a proxy for Miriam is emotionally accurate, a disturbing depiction of casual family brutality.
Legrand concentrates on the growing dysfunction between father and son, meaning that both Miriam and especially Joséphine sink a little into the background. However, he balances that lopsided character development with a slow ratcheting of the tension, as Antoine's actions become more overtly dangerous. Yet Legrand avoids all thriller tropes, instead combining the visual assurance of contemporary French cinema with a grounded kitchen-sink drama sensibility, evocative of Ken Loach at his most incisive. He even weaves in some stylized set-pieces, including a lengthy and impeccably structured sequence at Joséphine's 18th birthday party. A peerless fusing of dumbshow performance and background sound editing, there's a rising panic that allows the final, violent closing act to seem shockingly organic.