“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” Xavier Legrand chose this famous Hitchcockian quote when describing his first feature. Custody is thriller-like in its masterful proliferation of tension; the audience watch with bated breath as the spectre of domestic violence looms ever larger over us.
The director picks up from the end of his Oscar-nominated short Just Before Losing Everything. Beginning in a family courtroom, we witness Miriam and Antoine discuss custody of their child, Julien. For those who have not seen the previous movie, the situation is ambiguous. Is Antoine genuine in his desire for fatherhood or is he the abusive manipulator Miriam claims? Our own uncertainty is reflected in the actions of the judge. Legrand is a conscientious filmmaker and this opening scene deftly highlights a struggle many abused women face in society: being disbelieved.
Antoine, spurred on by success in the courtroom, becomes increasingly menacing, and his behaviour moves from sinister manipulation to uncontrollable aggression. His unravelling is terrifying in its believability. Denis Ménochet is disturbingly brilliant in the role, while Thomas Gioria beautifully captures the incredible fear felt by the son, Julien. Fantastic performances from the entire cast are captured in their every nuance by Legrand’s observational style and closely cropped camerawork.
The intimacy of the camera magnifies the palpable anxiety the characters feel, while the sound accentuates the claustrophobic effect of the father’s presence. From the car’s revving engine to Antoine’s breathing, commonplace sounds take on new meaning, their increasingly suffocating impact mirroring his growing malevolent influence. As tension builds in the penultimate scene at a party, the dialogue is entirely drowned out by pop music. Fine-tuned over several years, all the elements of Custody have been perfectly choreographed, and it seems no coincidence that the film, and the violence, ends in a whisper.
A lack of original score combined with naturalist camerawork gives the picture a realist documentary edge; from the town hall to the estate, these are images of modern France. This is the director’s masterstroke: the mundane appearance of the movie’s subject makes the underlying violence all the more sinister. A filmmaker with a message, Legrand succeeds in illuminating the unimaginable terror of domestic abuse. Custody is an utterly menacing portrayal of the everyday from which we cannot look away.
Custody is released nationwide on 13th April 2018.
Watch the trailer for Custody here: