Custody (2017) opens on a long yet gripping scene set in a courtroom, an understated moment in which opposing legal teams set out the facts in the case between a separated couple (Léa Drucker and Denis Ménochet) as they both nervously sit in silence. He wants to see his son (Thomas Gioria) on regular weekend visits, while she just wants him out of their lives for good. “Which of you is the bigger liar?,” says the judge (Saadia Bentaïeb), echoing a thought that we can’t help but have too. It’s a fascinating moment that writer-director Xavier Legrand expertly uses to set out the foundations of his story and draw us into their feud, Legrand playing with our emotions in the hopes we’ll pick a side. But as the narrative unfolds, we begin to see that whatever initial thoughts and feelings we had about this couple, we are unprepared for the agonising tale that is just around the corner, and how dire the consequences of this meeting truly are.
Legrand’s film is filled with scenes like this courtroom opening – quiet moments that are simmering with unbearable tension as the story slowly unravels. Indeed, Custody is less of a full narrative of this family’s life and rather a single snapshot steadily developing over the course of the film. We are never fully told the background of how they got here – of why Antoine’s daughter Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux) refuses to speak to him, or why the marriage broke down in the first place, Legrand merely hinting at what might have happened. Legrand even keeps his cards close to his chest with the narrative he has chosen to play out in Custody, rarely revealing exactly what is going on and instead letting us draw our own conclusions. It is a technique that Legrand executes masterfully and which makes his film all the more compelling to watch, and one which also makes this worth multiple viewings.
Silence plays a big part in Legrand’s storytelling technique, these taut scenes often using little to no dialogue yet still allowing us to build up a picture of what is happening through the brilliant performances from the central cast. While there is no actual score to speak of, there is a kind of natural music that Legrand uses throughout to build the tension in these silent moments. Ticking clocks, a ringing phone, a car indicator: in Legrand’s hands each becomes its own instrument in a way similar to a horror film, used to fill us with sick anticipation and make our hearts race. Never has a seatbelt warning sound been so ominous. And later on during a party for Joséphine’s birthday, Legrand uses sound in a different yet still wholly effective way, deliberately cranking up the loud party music to drown out the characters’ words as we watch their faces turn from joyful to suddenly horrified when Joséphine receives a text. We never see the text or hear what Joséphine and her Mum discuss about it, but from their frightened, desperate faces we can fully comprehend that something bad is on the horizon.
Léa Drucker as Miriam is particularly excellent in this moment, her stoic face telling us exactly what’s going through this desperate, put-upon woman’s mind. Her portrayal is exceptional throughout, her calm exterior often in danger of breaking and letting out a wealth of hidden emotions that lie just below the surface – emotions that she knows she needs to keep to herself for the sake of her children. As her daughter, Mathilde Auneveux is equally excellent, her natural performance excelling throughout and drawing us in, especially during a moment onstage at her party when she needs to keep singing, despite her tearful, red eyes threatening to spill over. But it is Denis Ménochet as Antoine that really builds the tension in many of Custody’s standout scenes, his threatening size and ability to switch from quiet and gentle to hideous anger at the drop of a hat terrifying to witness. Yet Ménochet still hints at something within Antoine that is conflicted about all of this – a man simply desperate to see his kids, but one that may not have the patience to go down the right avenues to do so.
While these three performances are all amazing to see, it is Thomas Gioria as Julien that is an absolute revelation here. He gives a heart-breaking portrayal as the young son caught up in all this when he doesn’t want to be – the child being used as a pawn in this horrid game between his parents. Moments between him and Ménochet are agonising to watch, Gioria often in tears as he tries to think of a way out that won’t upset his father, but that won’t hurt his mother either. He is the heart and soul of the film who Legrand lets us truly connect with, the director coaxing a natural performance from him and letting him run away with every scene he’s in.
Unravelling at a steady pace, Legrand lets each of these performances grow as he builds his narrative threads, eventually drawing them together to deliver a conclusion that is sickeningly dreadful – an explosive moment that is almost unbearable to watch. Custody is an exceptional first-time feature film from writer-director Legrand, his direction assured and his use of still shots drawing us into this world in a way that makes what happens to this family stick in your mind long after seeing it. His short film ‘Just Before Losing Everything’ is the only extra included on this Blu-ray release (except the obligatory trailer) and makes for fascinating viewing after the main film – a different approach to the same story and characters that Custody features, but one that instead becomes a dreadful race against time. It’s intriguing to see how Legrand has built up this idea since then, and assures you he’s heading to great places after this.