“Custody,” a Portrayal of Domestic Violence

The first feature-length movie by Xavier Legrand offers an intimate depiction of a couple in the midst of a divorce, and picked up two awards at the last Venice International Film Festival. A striking work combining documentary, thriller, and social drama genres.

The film opens with a scene set in a judge’s office. Miriam and Antoine Besson are going through the administrative and legal motions of their divorce, and are at loggerheads via their respective lawyers. The tension is palpable. Miriam is looking to protect their 11-year-old son Julien by taking him away from his father, whom she accuses of being violent. She requests sole custody of their child, who has also written a letter to the judge personally expressing his desire to stay with his mother. The father denies his ex-wife’s accusations and claims to be devastated at the prospect of never seeing his son. His lawyer steps in and puts forward some convincing arguments that persuade the judge to grant shared custody between the parents.

Following this prologue, which could almost be taken from a documentary, the movie zooms in on the intimate drama playing out within the Besson family and develops unrelentingly into a thriller. Proving his capacity for harassment and manipulation, Antoine gradually shows himself to be a real danger to his loved ones. He pressures his son into divulging information and uses him to maintain his power over his ex-wife. Julien is torn between the fear of and empathy for his father, while also trying to protect his mother. The familial noose slowly tightens… Finding himself held emotionally hostage by his parents, Julien will do anything to stop the worst from happening.

With his simple, elegant directing style, Xavier Legrand — who admits to having watched Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining countless times — manages to cultivate an increasingly stressful environment right up to the final, overwhelming shots. The movie also owes a lot to its cast. Denis Ménochet, who has been unfairly confined to secondary roles until now, is the perfect embodiment of a man far more devious than he seems. Léa Drucker plays the mother alongside Thomas Gioria as her son, and both offer excellent performances. A masterful first work that shines a light on the reasons behind ordinary madness and the violence it can create within a family. A revelation.

U.S. release: June 29, 2018
Run time: 93 min

Director: Xavier Legrand
With: Léa Drucker, Denis Ménochet, Thomas Gioria
Distributor: Kino Lorber

Article published in the June 2018 issue of France-Amérique