'Custody' review - divorce drama at its most unsettingly suspenseful

An unnerving drama with a finale that defies convention. By David Thirkeld.

Xavier Legrande’s first feature length film turns the screw from the very beginning. But it is only during the climax that we witness the true intensity and hell that Antoine inflicts on his ex-wife Miriam and her son Julien.

Custody ('Jusqu’à la garde') is a French drama adapted from, and extending on, Legrande’s 2013 project Just Before Losing Everything ('Avant que de tout perdre'), featuring the same cast. Beginning amidst the chaos of a custody hearing, it seems natural to assume that the film will build on the ambiguities that it establishes from the off. In the first scene Antoine calmly contests Miriam in what seems like a “he said, she said” legal battle that will force us to take sides. Yet, it becomes increasingly clear that Minochet’s character is not only an inadequate father, but a brutish force who threatens the livelihood of those supposedly dearest to him.

In the first few scenes we are provided with feelings of unease that are certainly palpable, but the suspense is masterfully crafted as an incremental progression to chaos which goes wholly unnoticed by the audience. It is to Legandre’s credit that he manages to build this tension by transforming an assortment of seemingly mundane scenes into nail-biting occasions. During a mealtime with his parents and Julien, the elephant in the room rears its ugly head. Antoine is attentive to every word pertaining to the relocation of his family. He relentlessly presses Julien after a passing comment by his grandmother puts him on the scent. In doing so the delicate layer of civility previously created by Antoine’s parents’ table talk is shattered.

Later in the film this is topped when Julien’s elder sister Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux) receives a text message that makes her face blanch. Once again Antoine’s actions disturb the momentary calm. His daughter’s 18th birthday party is no longer joyous but marred by her restless glances around the room in fear of his intrusion. This all builds to a scintillating crescendo which alters the conventions we would expect from a drama. The darkness and silence of Miriam’s dingy apartment at night creates an intense claustrophobia heightened by the jarring sounds that follow.

Xavier Legrande’s first feature length film turns the screw from the very beginning

First a doorbell rings incessantly, then we hear the discomforting thudding of footsteps coming closer. Whilst the finale predictably utilises the gun that we were introduced to earlier, it is nonetheless jarring when Antoine resolves to fire it. What ensues is as high strung as it gets and is decidedly more horrific than anticipated; we can certainly see Legrande’s inspiration from The Shining here.

The time-frame of this relatively short film could be criticised for restricting the depth of character development. From early on we see little to redeem Antoine; he is too far gone by the middle of the film to even be redeemed by an sudden outpouring of emotion. As his burly figure envelops Miriam he repeats: “I have changed” to little reaction other than deference as his ex-wife focuses on removing him from the house. Even so, this doesn’t seem to be what Legrande is aiming for, and perhaps the alternative would have made for a far less enthralling film. We know that Antoine is a menace, yet we still don’t expect him to plunge to the depths that he does in the end.

the suspense is masterfully crafted as an incremental progression to chaos

It is difficult to see Custody having the same effect if it were not for the brilliant performances of its leading members. First time actor Gioria revels in the social realist style that’s favoured by the director. Despite his youth he shows a clear control over the intricacies of his character’s progression from fear, to pure dread, then to trauma as he and Drucker are reduced to a tearful wreck at the close. Of course, this doesn’t detract from what it an impressive debut and should see Legrande replicate his award-winning exploits in the near future.

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