Xavier Legrand’s intense debut feature, “Custody,” takes place a few years after the events depicted in his Oscar-nominated 29-minute short film “Just Before Losing Everything,” which featured a physically abusive marriage. Since few people, including myself, have seen that film, “Custody” will seem like fresh territory to most audiences, and Legrand assumes as much. In the custody hearing that opens the film, Miriam (Léa Drucker) and her ex-husband, Antoine (Denis Ménochet), flanked by their lawyers, square off before a judge. Legrand plays out the “he said, she said” scenario without tipping his hand. Who is telling the truth?
The burly, working-class Antoine claims he changed jobs and residences to be near his 11-year-old son, Julien (Thomas Gioria), of whom he seeks joint custody. Julien, however, as is demonstrated at the hearing, is fearful of his father. So is his sister, Josephine (Mathilde Auneveux), who will legally be an adult soon and therefore beyond her father’s control. When, shortly after this scene, Antoine is unexpectedly granted joint custody of Julien, it is the boy who is caught in the middle of all this toxicity. But we still don’t know what’s going on: Has his mother, in vengeance, poisoned his relationship with the father who is only trying to do right by his son, or is the bearish Antoine anything but a teddy bear?
Legrand began his movie career as an actor – he was one of the boys in Louis Malle’s great 1987 autobiographical Holocaust drama “Au Revoir les Enfants” – so it makes sense that much of this movie is focused on the actors’ faces and on how their bodies contort in moments of high duress. “Custody” is structured as a suspense film that incrementally morphs into a kind of horror film, but I was too fixated on what the characters were going through to think much about genre mechanics. (Legrand claims his movie’s three big influences are “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “The Night of the Hunter,” and “The Shining,” which pretty much cover the waterfront.)
What rescues the film from melodrama is that Legrand drew on extensive interviews with psychologists, emergency police personnel, female victims, and batterers. The bone-deep chill of real, observed experience cuts through this film and gives it a verity that at times reminded me of Frederick Wiseman’s harrowing documentary “Domestic Violence.”
The drawback to Legrand’s approach is that at times the people are presented more as symbols than as individuals. Miriam, Antoine, and, to a lesser extent, Julien resemble stand-ins for all those who have preceded them in the domestic violence arena. They don’t quite have the fullness of characterization that would lift this film into a richer realm where the emphasis is not so much on whodunit as whydunit.
There are still moments that sear, many of them centered on Julien. We can see how his need for a father is severely complicated by his love for his mother and his desire to protect her. When Antoine pressures the boy into revealing, against the court’s ruling, where Miriam is living, he is crestfallen (and too scared to show it). As in all good movies of this kind, the ordeal of the children is not skimped. They bear the brunt, and the legacy, of the anguish. Grade: B+ (This movie is not rated.)