Custody (Jusqu’à la garde) movie review: family ties, slashered

Custody yellow light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Transforms a straightforward story of domestic violence into something like a horror movie, and it’s so harrowing and so incredibly tense that I’m not sure that it’s not exploitive.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, female coprotagonist
(learn more about this)

Idon’t know if I can take this, I wrote at one point in my notes while enduring Custody, the debut feature of French writer-director Xavier Legrand, which transforms a straightforward depiction of domestic violence into something like a horror movie. Not that what many women and children are subjected to at the hands of violent, possessive husbands and fathers isn’t horrible — it is. But what Legrand is offering us here is simply the everyday family life of too many people, and it’s so harrowing that I’m not sure that it’s not exploitive.

I think there’s meant to be suspense early on, as divorcing couple Miriam (Léa Drucker: In My Skin) and Antoine (Denis Ménochet: Mary Magdalene, The Program) attend a hearing with the judge who will decide whether he will get the joint custody of their son, 11-year-old Julien (Thomas Gioria), that he is seeking. (The couple have a daughter as well, Joséphine [Mathilde Auneveux], but she’s 18 and can decide for herself if and when she wants contact with her father.) The skeptical judge wonders which of them is the bigger liar: Miriam, who tells of intimidation and abuse at her husband’s hands, or Antoine, who presents a calm and respectable face and talks of making the sacrifice of moving house and changing jobs in order to be near his son.

Antoine presents his reasonable face to the judge...
Antoine presents his reasonable face to the judge…

The implication of Custody is that Miriam and Antoine are, at least at first, equally plausible, but they simply are not, as anyone with the barest knowledge of this dynamic would know. As expected, almost instantly after the judge decides in Antoine’s favor, he turns stalkerish, showing up unannounced at Miriam and Julien’s new apartment, the location of which they have tried to keep from him. He ignores the kid when he is supposed to be spending some of that joint-custody quality time with his son: it’s clear Julien is nothing more than a pawn in a power game Antoine is playing with the boy’s mother. There is not one whit of surprise about anything that Antoine does or says. Men like Antoine behave in real life in extremely predictable ways, almost as if they are following a script. That Antoine is a fictional character literally following a script feels like a bad joke.

Custody won the Silver Lion for best direction at Venice Film Festival last year, and it is incredibly well directed. But to what end? Tension hangs over absolutely every moment of the film, even when Antoine is not present, because we are just waiting — as Miriam and Julien are — for him to show up and terrorize them. And in every moment that he is present, we’re just waiting for him to explode. But is this not merely turning a real-life terror into an entertainment that sits comfortably alongside other movies that depict invented fantasies, or at least very rare crimes, of ax murderers and serial killers? Custody is a high-toned slasher flick, and I’m not sure that that doesn’t ultimately diminish and dismiss a terrible reality rather than explicate it.

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