Custody begins a little like A Separation, Asghar Farhadi’s moral thriller that made him a major force in world cinema. In both films, there is a lengthy, impersonal legal hearing, one where the parties involved are obliged to hide their feelings. These hearings lay out the specifics of the failed marriage, except legal language does not adequately grasp what is at stake. Whereas A Separation creates a complex drama full of secrets and misunderstanding, Custody has a more exacting, painful approach. In his feature debut, Xavier Legrand uses the constraints of a thriller to put is in the shoes of a family torn apart by violence and fear.
In the hearing, we are not sure who to believe. Miriam (Léa Drucker) suggests her ex-husband Antoine (Denis Ménochet) is abusive, while Antoine persists that Miriam turned their children against him. Their daughter Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux) is almost eighteen, so she is not the court’s concern. Instead, everyone focuses on Julien (Thomas Gioria), who is around ten. Antoine is allowed some visits, and Julien seems in agony whenever he is with his father. At first, both parents are possessive, without being especially nurturing. But as we spend more time with Antoine, we see more of his temper. Everyone in Antoine’s family, even his parents, tiptoe around his demands so he does not explode. And when Miriam takes steps to distance herself from him, that just makes him angrier.
Legrand frames each sequence so there is little relief. Many of the scenes are from Julien’s point of view: he wants to defend his mom from his dad – a common reaction among children of divorced parents – even though she does not expect that from him. The build-up to Julien visiting his father is protracted: there is a lengthy negotiation where Antoine insists on Julien coming to the car, even though the boy claims he is sick. Everyone knows Julien is exaggerating, except Antoine does not care. This is his time for visitation, damn it, and he will take it. Legrand achieves considerable tension by denying us any family history: we have the hearing in the first scene, but no evidence of Antoine at his worst. Then there is also the formal quality to the tension: everyday sounds, like a car beeping when a seat belt is not fastened, function like a warning of an exploding bomb.
This build-up and relief of suspense has all the genre trappings of a thriller. Indeed, most of the film achieves an intense level of anxiety that may make audiences recoil in their seats. But if this suspense is in service a situation that is realistic, even common, then is the film still a thriller? That genre is one of the classics because it is usually about escape. Legrand suggests that this is indeed a thriller, albeit one with different ambitions. Custody is a film about empathy for all parties involved, including Antoine. By the end of the film, he is a lost cause, and his reign of terror is over. But he also clearly loves his children. This is a man wounded by heartbreak, and without the proper recourse (or emotional stability) to deal with it.
The key to Custody‘s success is Ménochet’s performance. You may recognize him as the dairy farmer from the opening sequence of Inglourious Basterds. In that performance, he seems reasonable and frightened, but as Antoine he is the opposite: he is frightening precisely because he does not see what effect he has on his family. Ménochet also has considerable physical presence, so he dwarfs his ex-wife and children in the frame. Gioria also gives a terrific performance as Julien. He face is in a perpetual wince, as if he anticipates his father’s moves before they occur to him. Still, it is Drucker who helps us best understand the story. Miriam is the only capable adult in Custody, and the way she negotiates through Antoine’s anger has the coiled resignation of victimhood that is instantly recognizable.
Custody is not a film to be taken lightly. In fact, it could be triggering for children of divorce and anyone who has experienced domestic abuse. But it is a serious film, uncompromising and committed to its vision. Legrand uses his gifts as a filmmaker to put us into the mindset that is more common than someone who is wrongly accused, or tormented by a demented killer. Though this situation is all too frequent, this family’s sense of terror is just as heightened, authentic, and crippling.