San Sebastian 2017 review: Custody (Xavier Legrand)

Xavier Legrand made a name for himself four years ago, with the impressive short film Just Before Losing Everything (Avant que de tout perdre), about a woman and her children fleeing from a violent husband and father. For his first feature film, Legrand reprises the same theme, as well as the same actors and characters (Léa Drucker as the wife and Denis Ménochet as the husband). Custody (the English title which loses the double meaning of the French one, Jusqu’à la garde, also translating into ‘up to the hilt’) starts like a solid documentary on divorce hearings and how justice handles the issue of shared custody. Miriam quit her husband Antoine, with their two kids Joséphine, soon to be eighteen, and Julien, eleven, on the basis that he was abusive and violent towards all three of them. They absolutely don’t want to be near him anymore, but faced with a lack of practical evidence of Antoine’s brutal manners, the judge has to reject Miriam’s special request to forbid him to see Julien. She grants him the minimum the law allows him to have: the right to be with his underage son every other weekend.

In this first sequence, and in a few others after, we share the point of view of the judge – not knowing anything of these two adults fighting and loathing each other, and therefore not being able to know “which one is the biggest liar“, as she puts it coldly. The application of the judge’s decision leads the film on a new path, on which Legrand shows himself as good as before: the tale of the day-to-day existence in a small French town in the countryside. At first all we perceive is the quiet surface of things, the habits you set between two split homes – family dinners, going to school, establishing how and when Julien comes and goes between his mother’s house and his father’s. The harassing, the bullying, the hitting inflicted by Antoine slowly creep under the skin of the movie, until we find ourselves in a state of nervous tension as dreadful as what Miriam and the kids are going through. Finally we understand their anguish, and why they were asking the judge to be so harsh against Antoine. Joséphine’s eighteenth birthday party becomes the same terrifying experience for us as it is for them. They should be celebrating, instead they are frozen in a state where they are scared stiff of an intangible danger that could come from anywhere, attack any one of them. They tremble and are on the verge of tears, even when surrounded by all their loved ones, and Legrand’s breathtaking directing puts us in the very same condition – while the worst has yet to come.

You don’t make the rules around here“, snapped Antoine’s father earlier, after having endured one more outburst from his son at his own dinner table. This is the founding idea upon which the whole movie is built: who is making the rules, either in society (the ruling from the judge based on the French law in the beginning), or in each family? What is frightening above all things is the eventuality of one man deciding to make his own set of rules, in an arbitrary manner; and then to enforce them also by himself, through the use of violence. This is what Custody is aiming at, and it does it in the most nightmarish way – which also is the most impressive one in cinematographic terms. The final act has nothing more to do with French realistic social cinema, and everything in common with American blunt horror genre. When Antoine’s anger and frustration eventually explode, it brings to Custody a fury akin to the fury roaring in The Shining, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Straw Dogs. These final ten minutes, directed by a French rookie director and yet having the terrifying strength of the works of the best American craftsmen, would astonish us if we weren’t so busy with the fear eating up our minds, together with the characters’. When it ends we are left numb with shock, devastated as if rolled over by a tidal wave, as very few movies made us feel in recent years.