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Film Review: Custody

Director:   Xavier Legrand

Cast:   Denis Ménochet, Léa Drucker, Thomas Gioria, Mathilde Auneveux, Mathieu Saikaly, Florence Janas, Saadia Bentaïeb, Sophie Pincemaille, Emilie Incerti-Formentini

Rating:   M

Running Time:   93

Australian Distributor:    Palace Films


Spousal and parental abuse is not just physical; it’s the psychological strain that’s just as galling and damaging. Yet, as portrayed in writer/director Xavier Legrand’s assured and measured first feature Custody, one is often a companion to the other. The opening sequence is pure he said, she said in a French family court hearing, as a judge takes evidence from both sides in what is clearly an unpleasant divorce proceeding.  

After her divorce from the violent Antoine (Denis Ménochet), Miriam (Léa Drucker) is seeking sole custody of their teenage son, Julien (Thomas Gioria). While her daughter Josephine (Mathilde Auneveux) is already old enough to make her own decisions, Julien is ordered to visit his father. But it soon becomes apparent that Antoine has his own ideas about how to handle the new situation.

Although convincing in the courtroom, Antoine drops all pretence when he starts picking up his son for weekend visits. His bullying leaves Julien frequently distraught and it soon becomes clear that Antoine wants only to know where Miriam has moved to. His obsession knows no bounds and he is increasingly unable to contain his emotions.

Legrand’s film explores – in both subtle and overt ways – just how devastating these issues can be and how they can destroy the very relationships that they seek to control.  He balances some lopsided character development with a slow ratcheting of the tension, as Antoine’s actions become more overtly dangerous. Yet Legrand avoids all thriller tropes, instead combining the visual assurance of contemporary French cinema with a grounded kitchen-sink drama sensibility, evocative of Ken Loach at his most incisive.   

Legrand knows how to handle his cast and Drucker, Ménochet and Gioria all work well together, with the youngster, in a part that relies more on what he does than what he says, showing real potential as a future star.

The psychology of fear is Legrand’s main thrust in Custody. It’s an impressive debut feature and an engaging movie. It takes some patience, because the beginning is glacially paced, but the effort is well rewarded as it goes on.

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