Thursday, June 28, 2018

Movie Review: Custody

Custody **** / *****
Directed by: Xavier Legrand.
Written by: Xavier Legrand.
Starring: Léa Drucker (Miriam Besson), Denis Ménochet (Antoine Besson), Thomas Gioria (Julien Besson), Mathilde Auneveux (Joséphine Besson), Mathieu Saikaly (Samuel), Florence Janas (Sylvia), Saadia Bentaïeb (La juge).
Xavier Legrand’s debut feature, Custody, is a simple and straight forward drama – and it’s all the more powerful for it. It opens with an extended sequence in family court, where a recently divorced couple argue, through their attorneys, with a judge about custody of their 12 year old son. This scene is brilliantly staged, in part because it withholds the inherent emotion of the situation – having the judge or the lawyers do all the talking, even when some fairly explosive allegations of abuse are being tossed around. From there, the movie ratchets up the tension on a scene-by-scene basis, as every one of them threatens to explode into violence. This is not an even handed, everyone is guilty story – there is a villain, even if it takes a while for him to show his true colors.
The divorced couple at the center of the movie actually have two kids – but their daughter is about to turn 18, and because of that, when she says she wants nothing to do with her dad, there is nothing anyone can do to force her. She is having her own issues – a whole subplot, involving her boyfriend, her party, and whether or not he attends school, is perhaps a little too neat for its own good, but still effective in its way. The main focus on the movie is the relationship between the petty, violent father Antoine (Denis Ménochet) and his 12 year old son, Julien (Thomas Gloria). Like his sister, Julien doesn’t want to see his father, but if the court orders it, he has little choice but to go along. Julien’s mother, Miriam (Lea Drucker) wants nothing to do with her ex-husband – doesn’t even want him to know her phone number or where they currently live – he has to pick up his son at his grandparents’ house. The film builds, scene-by-scene, to show how this petty, violent, pathetic man can break down his son in an attempt to gain control over a situation over which he feels has grown powerless.
The first hour of the movie is slowly, subtlety heartbreaking. It’s basically shot in a neo-realist style, and observes as all this happens. The last act ends pretty much where we have expected it to – and feared it would go – and is as intense as an horror movie you can think of, all the more so because by then, everything feels so real, and the film never goes over-the-top in something too melodramatic or unbelievable.
I do kind of wish that the film had some more areas of grey in it than it does. Just because it takes the movie a whole to show Antoine’s true colors, that isn’t the same as him being a complex character. But the film works well as a portrait of domestic violence and abuse – not just the outwardly horrible stuff you see, but the slower, more insidious way abusers get into your ahead, and pervert everything. It’s a remarkable debut for Legrand, who unlike many first time filmmakers doesn’t bite off more than he can chew here – he tells a simple story, extremely well. He’s one to watch.

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