Movies are best consumed without expectations but sometimes a warning can be helpful. The hyper-realistic French filmCustody (2018) is less about child custody than it is a vehicle for depicting the most pulse-racing domestic terrorism you are likely to see in a long while. It is visceral and raw, as is the fact that one French woman is killed every three days by a partner. This film suggests why.
The opening scenes are clinically documentary in style. A magistrate takes submissions from lawyers for estranged couple Antoine (Denis Ménochet) and Miriam (Léa Drucker) over custody of their 12-year old son Julien (Thomas Gioria). It is impossible for us to gauge the merits of either litigant and easy to empathise with both. On the available evidence, the magistrate takes a routine middle path and awards custody, an outcome that will imperil mother and child.
If it were possible to plot the tension curve of this film, it would start just off the floor then work its way through the roof. Initially Antoine behaves like an aggrieved husband who loves his son. Step by step, we see him using custody rights to manipulate Julien into revealing information about his mother. The legally necessary contact between the slightly built Miriam and the towering hulk Antoine become increasingly ominous. His overbearing silence in key scenes drips with menace as she knows his capacity for violence and the law is no help.
This film stands out for the grounded way it depicts the escalation of threat. It keeps actual physical domestic violence out of the picture, and instead shows the psychological pressures of trying to separate from a violent man. The acting performances are extraordinary. Ménochet only has to raise an eyebrow and tensions rise, while Drucker is a portrait of frozen fear. The standout performance comes from young Gioria whose astonishing authenticity belies his tender years. The cinematography powers the narrative and shapes the claustrophobic atmosphere in which a mother and child are being given progressively less space to breathe. Many scenes are prolonged in length to create real-time voids into which is poured relentless suspense.
Be warned: this is not entertainment. It is more like stepping into the shoes of a defenceless mother and child who must fend for themselves against a raging beast. The indescribably frightening final scenes re-define the concept of ‘toxic masculinity’ and make you wonder about today’s role models of manhood.
Director: Xavier Legrand
Stars: Denis Ménochet, Léa Drucker, Thomas Gioria