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CUSTODY (2017) review

August 24, 2018

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written by: Xavier Legrand
produced by: Alexandre Gavras
directed by: Xavier Legrand
rated: not rated
runtime: 93 min.
U.S. release date: October 218, 2017 (Chicago International Film Festival) & August 24, 2018 (Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL)

 

Adults can say “it’s not your fault” all they want to children experiencing the divorce of their parents, but the irreversible life-long emotional damage is done. When a child is involved, the actual divorce process can be a torturous gamut, especially when custody proceedings turn bitter, leaving the child to inevitably witness a family feud. If the parents aren’t mindful, the child can be pulled between the two or used to manipulation the other spouse. That’s what we see in writer/director Xavier Legrand’s tense drama that follows such proceedings to gut-wrenching means and destructive ends. Anguish, confusion and fear permeate this confident picture, which deftly handles complex situations and emotions, resulting in a truly riveting and exhausting experience. 

In moder-day France, Miriam (Léa Drucker) and Antoine (Denis Ménochet) are going through a rough time finalizing their divorce, circling through endless legal battles revolving around the custody of their 11-year-old son, Julien (Thomas Gioria), since their oldest, 18-year-old Josephine (Mathilde Auneveux) is now of age and determined to make her own life with boyfriend Samuel (Mathieu Saikaly). Antoine paints himself as a hard-working, caring father, one who just wants a relationship with his young son. He hulking man is responsible for security of a hospital that is currently being built and is supposedly praised by all who work with him. However, his wife and children don’t see him in such a light. In fact, they are afraid of Antoine, claiming the man is an abusive monster, who displays a short, volatile temper and used physical violence on Miriam and Josephine in the past, despite his dismissive denials.

 

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Since Julien is a minor, the poor kid is stuck in the middle and must endure court- mandated time with Antoine. Filled with disdain for his father, Julian refuses to look him in the eyes or respond to any inquiries (most of which are questions about what his mother is doing now that they’re apart) and only goes along with his scheduled alternate weekends with his father, to say his mother the grief. But, Julien can’t do anything about Antoine’s increasing frustration, as he becomes increasingly obsessed with what his family is doing without him, losing touch with whatever sanity he portrayed. Fear increases as nerves are shattered as Miriam and her children remain vigilant to the point of paranoia, as the persistent Antoine becomes a looming threat to any chance at peace, let alone a new life.

Viewers will have no idea what’s in store for them after watching the first fifteen minutes of “Custody”. We’re witness to a custody hearing attended by Miriam and Antoine and their respective attorneys, moderated by a stern judge who is there to present options and hear both sides. A recent written statement from Julian is read aloud, where it’s made clear that he wants nothing to do with his father. It’s here where we first get to know Miriam and Antoine, two pivotal characters in the life of Julian, both of who exude tension, most of the time in raptured silence. This is the tense set-up – the first act, if you will – of a absorbing three-act play. It’s where Antoine claims innocence and reasons with Miriam’s accusations of harm to herself and Josephine. There may be exposition here, but the whole thing is framed in such a way that finds us edging closer and closer and listening a little louder as the scene unfolds. The judge states she will contact them with her decision, but in light of the events to come, it becomes frustrating when we never see her again. Clearly, this is a family in need of intervention.

After the extensive hearing scene we begin to see what the lives of this fractured family looks like. Lagrand wastes no time establishing the crippling emotional impact Antoine has on his family, especially Julian. Antoine’s relentless badgering leaves Julian to resort to lies in an effort to protect his mother and her new life that not only involves a boyfriend but a secret apartment that Miriam has moved her children into as well. While Josephine, a music student studying singing, is busy beginning a new life of her own with  Samuel, Julian is still reliant on his parents and becomes increasingly frustrating to watch him become a victim of a situation beyond his control. Both Miriam and Antoine’s parents try to help as much as they can, but one gets the idea that they lost any hold or influence on their children a long time ago.

“Custody” becomes an increasingly captivating and powerful film as the story unfolds. I don’t say that lightly, since it’s rare that a film’s story takes a hold of you and then maintains that hold till the end. Much of that is thanks to Legrand’s intelligent and thoughtful screenplay, which gives this stellar cast ample room to fully embody their characters, from the minutiae of expressions to sudden actions. Legrand’s impressive screenplay is a case study in how to convey various degrees of anger and its effect on crippling others. Nothing is broad or overblown about Legrand’s writing, in fact there’s a surprising amount of humanity to be found in each family member, which upends any predictability in and of itself.

 

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As Antoine, Ménochet is a simmering force who generates unbelievable tension, navigating the ex-husband and father’s irritations and fury with a deft, calculated touch. It’s a challenging role, pivotal to the success of “Custody”. At times, I found myself wanting some kind of redeeming quality to be given to Antoine, but then I was reminded how real monsters like this slowly reveal themselves, in an effort to try and get what they want. They lash out because of their own fears and insecurities. That’s what Ménochet does here and it is frighteningly powerful. We get a glimpse at how Antoine may have got his behavior when his own father goes off on him at dinner for the way he’s treating Julian. Although we’re siding with Antoine’s father, there’s an indication that their relationship has always been rocky and fragile.

Without a doubt, the most powerful scenes occur between Julian and Antoine, especially the scenes in Antoine’s car, where Julian is sitting in the passenger seat like a prisoner and his father sits behind the wheel as if plotting how to get more and more information about his ex from the boy. Lagrand barely uses any music in “Custody”, instead using sound to create dread and increase the palpable nerve-wracking tone. One such sound utilized to great affect is the seat belt indicator that goes off when a belt hasn’t been clicked yet. The beeps we hear accentuate the building tension that can be seen and felt. It’s like the when a kettle first goes off and sits there whistling until its turned off. There are other great examples of sound use in “Custody”, but it’s best if you discovered them all on your own.

For the film’s third act, “Custody” earns its way into an undeniable thriller. There’s a birthday party banquet for Josephine in a dance hall that is filled with many guests, where both Miriam and Josephine on edge as they do their best to keep track of Julian at the party and running interference in case Antoine shows his face. In a mesmerizing sequence, Josephine can be seen on stage with Samuel and their band performing Ike and Tina Turner’s version of “Proud Mary” (a purposeful albeit suitable choice) as Miriam and her sister try to calmly ensure that their family is safe from Antoine. The end of this heart-pounding third act is populated by probably the most desperate and exhausting moments on film that I’ve seen all year.

The film may lose the legalities of its title after its absorbing opening, but what we get is a harrowing look at a complex domestic drama complete with an overbearing villain and his unfortunate victims. We often hear people wonder why an abused spouse stays in their situation. Well, there are reasons, but this is a case where the ex-wife is doing everything she can to steer herself and her family away from the threat, but sometimes everything happens so unpredictably fast.

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

 

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