This article contains spoilers

A seamless blend of social-realist domestic drama and nerve-shredding thriller, Xavier Legrand’s debut feature Custody serves up a timely exploration of patriarchal power and the failings of the justice system in domestic abuse cases. Zeroing in on a post-divorce custody battle between a woman who has escaped her marriage and a husband who is determined to remain part of their young son’s life, the film dramatises the fear and anxiety that arises when an abusive man is able to exploit the law to get what he wants. Kramer vs Kramer (Dir. Robert Benton, 1979) it’s not. Indeed, where that film grew initially out of an anti-feminist (until Meryl Streep got involved)[1] attempt to counter the narrative that children are best raised by their mother, Custody takes a timely look at the messiness of separation when the psychological and physical abuse perpetrated by one party can’t be independently verified.

It’s a subject that Legrand arrived at thanks to his love of Greek tragedy. “I’m a theatre actor originally and I wanted to write for the theatre,” he says when we meet at the Glasgow Film Festival. “I wanted to write a contemporary Greek tragedy and Greek tragedy is full of stories about blood feuds, family members killing each other and families disintegrating, so I wanted to do a story like that.”

 After researching domestic violence — he met with victims, family court judges, psychologists and also attended therapy sessions for men undergoing treatment for violence[2] — he realised he was more comfortable tackling this issue on film than in theatre. His initial plan was to make a trilogy of short films exploring the issue and began with Just Before Losing Everything (Dir. Xavier Legrand, 2013), a 30-minute drama about a woman called Miriam, played by Léa Drucker, on the day she and her children flee Antoine (Denis Ménochet), the husband she fears. The film won a César award for best short and picked up an Oscar nomination too. Nevertheless, when it came to continuing the story, Legrand realised the subject matter was too complex to deal with in a short so decided to make a feature instead. 

The result is a stand-alone sequel that picks up the story of the same couple — once again played by Drucker and Ménochet — as the legal system intervenes in their case. In an intriguing move, Legrand sets the opening act entirely within the judge’s office as she listens to evidence from legal representatives for both sides. Dispassionately observing proceedings in order to put us in the same position as the judge, Legrand plants a few dramatic red flags regarding Antoine’s past behaviour, but as the scene plays out, we soon realise the circumstantial and anecdotal evidence presented isn’t going to be enough to prevent this man from gaining access to 12-year-old Julien (newcomer Thomas Giora).

But it’s what follows that makes Custody such a gripping film. Legrand subtly switches perspective, moving away from the outsider point-of-view of the judge to let us see Antoine through Julian’s eyes, then Miriam’s. “I wanted to tell the story of this man, but not from his perspective,” elaborates Legrand on the reason for structuring the film in this way. “[Antoine] is a manipulator and puts on many different masks, so it was interesting to explore the perspective of the people he manipulates to get what he wants.” 

This came out of the research he and Ménochet did into the sort of men commonly found in abusive relationships, the sort of men who will do anything — including playing the victim — to inveigle their way back into the lives of their families. “He’s the type of person that is called a ‘narcissistic pervert,’” explains Legrand. “I was trying to figure out what sort of behaviour those people have. He’s a man who is in complete denial of his own violence. He’s playing the victim because he thinks he is a victim. He’s uses fake sincerity to stop anyone suspecting him of doing anything wrong.”

Although the film has a definite political edge, Custody isn’t a didactic message movie. As a filmmaker Legrand embraces the naturalism of social realism, yet the film also has the escalating tension and propulsive energy of a thriller or a horror movie. Antoine’s unrelenting nature owes as much to The Terminator (Dir. James Cameron, 1984) as the rest of the film does to the Dardenne brothers, particularly as it reaches its nerve-shredding climax. “Normal situations can lead to horror,” reasons Legrand. “I’m not inventing a new style, but I wanted to see if it was possible to go from a social realist film into a horror film whilst remaining in reality and in a real situation.

“Yes, it’s a political film,” he continues. “But it’s not just a political film. It’s also a genre film. It’s a film that talks about lots of things. The thing about cinema is that it allows you to do all these things at the same time.”

 Alistair Harkness


Alistair Harkness is the film critic for The Scotsman.

 April 2018

[1] Michael Schulman, ‘How Meryl Streep Battled Dustin Hoffman, Retooled Her Role, and Won Her First Oscar’, Vanity Fair, March 2016

[2] Kieron Corless, ‘Fear Eats the Soul’, Sight & Sound, pp-8-9, May 2018

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