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Film & Television

‘Custody’ finds the terror in the everyday

By Harry Windsor
Director Xavier Legrand and actor Denis Ménochet discuss making their acclaimed thriller

Winner of the Silver Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival, Jusqu’à la garde (Custody) begins with a custody hearing in which an estranged couple (Denis Ménochet and Léa Drucker) is interrogated by a judge. The judge reads a letter written by the couple’s 12-year-old son, expressing his fear of his father. But the response of the father and his indignant lawyer is just credible enough to keep us guessing.

What follows is a 90-minute unravelling. (First-time director Xavier Legrand says he had two key references: Kramer vs. Kramer and The Shining.) A direct sequel to the filmmaker’s Oscar-nominated 2013 short Avant que de tout perdre (Just Before Losing Everything), and starring most of the same actors, Custody tracks, with methodical precision, a family’s desperate attempt to escape a vengeful patriarch.

Legrand, a former child actor who elicits a remarkable performance from his young lead, Thomas Gioria, was determined to focus on the everyday aspects of the story. “I wanted to stick to the bone,” he says, talking to me at the end of a long day’s junketing in a Paris hotel room. His script was informed by extensive consultation with psychologists, police, family law specialists and victims of abuse. One woman told the director that she could tell whether or not she was going to be punched, based on the way her partner put his key in the lock.

Her story is one reason the film foregoes a score. “I didn’t want to put in music that would underline the tension,” says the filmmaker. “It’s about the terror of everyday life, and this terror had to come from the environment: the click of the security belt in the car, or the elevator arriving in the building.” The result is the most nerve-jangling film of the year, a thriller that puts the viewer in the same state of perpetual alertness as its long-suffering characters.

Legrand’s short film follows Miriam (Drucker) on the day she flees her husband, but the feature delays our understanding of the situation in a way that establishes how skilled Antoine (a bearish Ménochet) is at manipulating people – because he does it to us. “We discover him through the eyes of his enemies. His enemy first of all is the judge, who he has to manipulate in order to have custody. Once he has the child, it’s the child that he manipulates, so that he gets information about his ex-wife. That’s when we change our point of view from the judge to the child to the woman.”

The scenes in which Antoine interrogates his son, Julien (Gioria), in the car – trying to force the boy to reveal where his mother is living – are filmed mostly in locked-off two-shots. The economy of the film’s framing is of a piece with Legrand’s mission to “unclutter the subject matter”, with none of the monologues or melodrama you might expect in a Hollywood treatment of this subject. But the simplicity of his approach also means our attention is entirely on the actors, and Gioria’s distress feels almost uncomfortably real. Legrand taught the boy how to cry on camera; “it’s just about blocking a yawn.”

To prepare for their scenes together, Ménochet purchased a football. “I was scared he would be self-conscious,” he says. “When you’re 12 and you have a whole crew around you, you can be impressed by it all, and you can start saying your dialogue in a self-conscious way.” So the actor instituted a game of catch between takes. Gioria would say his line, then throw the ball, and repeat with increased vigour. “I was almost violent with [the throws], so it was like stretching. That one scene in the car went really well because everyone was prepared and we found the moment with Xavier, but everyone was crying afterwards. That one got the best of me.” (Gioria, for his part, wondered what all the fuss was about.)

Ménochet is full of praise for his director’s skill, pointing especially to a masterfully sustained and choreographed sequence that takes place in a suburban hall, where Miriam throws an 18th birthday party for her eldest, Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux). As Joséphine sings on stage, Legrand builds a mounting sense of dread by cutting between her mother and aunt in the audience, whose hushed, often inaudible exchanges betray a rising tide.

Ménochet, best known to international audiences for his role in Inglourious Basterds, notes that Legrand’s win in Venice places him in esteemed company. “Scorsese got the Silver Lion. Paul Thomas Anderson got the Silver Lion. Visconti. It’s a good club. That’s why we’re so proud, because it’s a first film. As an actor it’s so exciting – more than the subject, for me, very selfishly – being part of a film that is fucking good cinema.”

Custody was on the shortlist to be France’s submission to next year’s Oscars, and it certainly would have been a topical pick. (Emmanuel Finkiel’s La Douleur [Memoir of War] got the nod.) Legrand notes that several audience members have approached him to argue for Miriam’s responsibility for what befalls her. “It’s a matter of education,” he says. “The roles that are given to girls and boys. What people are told about marriage is that it’s until death. So some men cannot accept that a woman can leave them. That’s why every two and a half days in France a woman dies. Because she has decided to leave a man and the man decides that she cannot. That they cannot be separated by her will, only by his. By death.”

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a critic for The Hollywood Reporter and the former editor of Inside Film.

Custody

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