A Subtly Charged Nail-biting Work of Social Lamp-lighting



In taut, unflinching detail, filmmaker Xavier Legrand makes the point that the only thing more dangerous than someone who’s lost everything but doesn’t yet realize it is that person realizing it.  From beginning to end, the French slow-burning thriller Custody demonstrates its merit as one of 2018’s most buzz-worthy under-the-radar accomplishments.  Now available on Blu-ray in the U.S., this meticulous yet naturalistic work is poised to for deserved discovery by the broader populace.

Custody is about the bitter fallout following the termination of a marriage in France.  The legal hearing, which opens the film, plays out in real time, as the all-female triumvirate of opposing lawyers and judge detail the divorcing couple’s past, family, and current situation.  The gender dynamic in the room, while not pronounced, proves interesting in light of the outcome, and what follows.  In under twenty minutes, a judge hears the tense arguments of the legal representatives and then the parents, and decides their fate.  Apparently this the efficiency with which such things are done in France.

Léa Drucker and Denis Ménochet, silent in the hearing in CUSTODY.

Figuratively slapped in the face by The System, the newly divorced Miriam (Léa Drucker) must now defensively navigate joint custody of their eleven-year-old son, Julian (an outstanding Thomas Gioria) with Antoine (Denis Ménochet).  Though Antoine’s history of frighteningly abusive behavior is laid out at the start, the counter-argument that he’s a responsible citizen and nice guy is enough to win over the judge.  Despite Julian’s damning written testimony against his father, the boy is locked into weekends with his father until he is eighteen.  

Even prior to this painful point in the narrative, Legrand is cultivating an uneasy atmosphere of entrapment, enclosure.  In his forthright, fourteen-minute bonus interview on this Kino Lorber disc, the filmmaker gladly shares his methodology:  nothing but compressed, tight shots during the legal hearing.  Many, many uncomfortable scenes between father and son in Antoine’s van.  And Miriam’s dwelling as a dim, windowless compound, closed off from the outside world by survival based fears.

Hailing from the theatre and having been an actor, Legrand freely and succinctly shares his concerns for those deemed powerless in the aftermath of a custody battle and have landed on the precarious side of such rulings.  In his on-camera interview, he cites some pretty harrowing statistics on post-divorce violence and even homicide against women by an enraged former spouse.  Legrand did his homework both in terms of his subject and his newly adopted medium.

Ménochet does a frighteningly effective job of embodying this male rage and surging pride-based violence.   though far from heartless, he is proves terrifying as his character.  Drucker is so good as Miriam, his rattled ex-wife whom we come to learn has entirely legitimate reasons for having fled, that it’s easy to miss the fact the fact that her role amounts to little more than her being afraid.  It must be pointed out, though, that the actress’s real turn to shine as the character occurs in Custody’s Oscar nominated prequel, 2013’s short Just Before Losing Everything.  The thirty-minute film marks not only the debut of Drucker and Ménochet as their characters, but also the directorial debut of Legrand.  Like Custody, it is a brilliantly realized piece of taut filmmaking, well deserving of its acclaim and worthy of its feature length follow-up.  Just Before Losing Everything is included as an extra on this Blu-ray.

The real story is young Gioria, as it’s his character’s fearful resistance and subsequent internal tremble at being used as a pawn in his father’s jealous schemes.  Much of Custody’s tenor rests on Gioria’s shoulders, telegraphing the fragility and fright that composes the situation.  He must communicate the brunt of the consequences, the entrapment, which a ruling routinely dictated in under twenty minutes wreaks.  It is one of the most empathetic and internalized youth performances in recent memory.

Legrand knows and understands all of this intrinsically.  It’s as though the emotion of the all-too-common situation as well as the visual compositions are second nature to him.  His characters occupy the foreground, middle grounds and backgrounds of his carefully composed shots.  Every detail in his filmmaking has been carefully considered, resulting in this, a nearly Welles-ian feature filmmaking debut.  In ninety-three minutes, the film invisibly ratchets up from a prolonged, unglamorous custody hearing to classic nail-biting tension.  In such, Xavier Legrand’s Custody, in being an unflinching work of social lamp-lighting and an unforgettable thriller, earns its keep as one of the finest cinema discoveries of late.  With a solid Blu-ray presentation, Kino Lorber does the film great justice.