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The hard-hitting and largely naturalistic French drama Custody (Jusqu’à la garde) dissects a family’s struggles with the fallout of a divorce and the resulting joint-custody arrangement for the kids. The latter is an acrimonious point because the mother had requested full custody for herself, arguing that the children did not want to see their father, who had been violent towards them, though she could not produce any proof of this in front of a judge.
Director Xavier Legrand here takes the basic idea and the two adult stars from his Oscar-nominated short, Just Before Losing Everything from 2013, to explore similar territory as it lays bare the tensions, lies and faulty defense mechanisms of the separated parents as well as their teenage kids. Confidently assembled and acted with impressive precision, this striking debut feature finally doesn’t fully convince psychologically but is nonetheless a more than solid calling card for Legrand. Competition slots in Venice and Toronto will precede a healthy festival life, while sales agent Celluloid Dreams should be able to sell theatrical rights to quite a few territories. It will open Feb. 7 in France.
In a nod to Legrand’s short, the film’s first scene unfolds in real time as an impatient but otherwise poker-faced judge (Saadia Bentaieb) listens to the lawyers of father Antoine (Denis Menochet, In the House) and mother Miriam (Lea Drucker, The Man of My Life). No one seems particularly concerned about the fate of daughter Josephine (Mathilde Auneveux), because she’s about to turn 18, so the hearing concentrates mainly on the needs and desires of 12-year-old Julien. He’s not present at the meeting but a statement he’s made about not wanting any contact with his father is read out, followed by the request of Miriam for sole custody because she suspects Antoine of having physically hurt their daughter on top of having camped out in front of her parents’ home just so he could see the kids. Antoine dismisses the accusations of violence and defends his right to see his own children. Crucially, there is practically no evidence for any physical harm done to Josephine.
In a move that’s typical of Legrand’s modus operandi as a storyteller — he also wrote the screenplay solo — Custody then cuts to days later when Miriam is told, inaudibly, about the judge’s decision over the phone and we then see the consequence: Antoine has come to the home of Miriam’s parents to pick up Julien, clearly indicating the judge at least gave Antoine the benefit of the doubt. By working in this semi-elliptical way, Legrand immediately draws viewers in as they will almost automatically pay closer attention to Antoine’s behavior from the start to figure out which of the parents was right and whether the judge made the right decision. While we don’t see Antoine beating anyone up, it’s clear from early he can be curt and brusque and not only with his ex-wife but also with Julien.
Antoine thus forces Julien to come have dinner at the home of his grandparents, who live hours away, on the first weekend, something Julien tries to get out of by saying he has a stomachache. But again, Legrand’s writing here opts for a certain slippery indirectness, as Julien is shown as manipulating the truth just as much as his father is trying to influence his standing with Miriam via Julien. With father and son thus both displaying questionable behavior, it remains unclear whether that stomachache was real or necessary (because perhaps Julien knew Antoine is capable of violence) or whether both sides are just using each other as they try to get the upper hand in this new world order they both need to try and get used to. One thing is clear: A divorce leaves neither children nor the parents without scars and people who are hurt, think they might have been wronged or are afraid of getting hurt in the future might not be on their best behavior when protecting their own interests.
(Spoilers in the following paragraph only.) There is an allusion as to where all this is headed in the original title of Jusqu’a la garde that’s perhaps less obvious in English. “Jusqu’a” means “until” or “up to” and “garde” can mean not only child custody but also police custody (called “garde a vue” in full), thus hinting already at an outcome involving the cops. But the film’s third act, which involves violence and a rifle, is not entirely credible in terms of the characters’ psychology and how it relates to the behavior suddenly displayed. There’s not enough of a trigger to make everything that happens feel believable. Legrand’s decision to leave things intentionally unclear early on so he can draw the audience into the family’s problems and consider them from various sides finally works against the third act’s cold hard facts. They now feel too unmotivated because the characters’ real motivations were not sharply defined for much too long.
Legrand worked with Drucker and Menochet on his short in very similar roles and they are both terrific here. Menochet’s hulking presence is already physically imposing and has a hint of menace about it but he also knows how to locate the heart of the man inside, like in a scene in Miriam’s kitchen in which he apologizes and then goes in for a hug that makes him look like an outsize toddler who just wants to be loved. Drucker also impresses in a role that’s not easy to play and her work in a late scene in a bathtub is especially impressive, finding exactly the right balance between the contrasting instincts and emotions whirling through her head. Auneveux is given less to do, though her two big scenes — one in which just her feet are visible while the other sees her sing Proud Mary on stage while her thoughts are elsewhere — are both pitch perfect.
But the cast’s MVP is without a doubt newcomer Thomas Gioria, whose Julien is the film’s most conflicted and complex character, a young boy trying to deal with harsh new realities he only half understands, behaving in ways that might be purely instinctual yet always come across as entirely believable. Legrand got his start as a child actor himself around age seven, when he appeared in Louis Malle’s classic Au revoir les enfants, an experience that perhaps helped him coax such a terrific performance out of Gioria. It would be more than deserved if the actor went home with the Mastroianni Award for best young performer in Venice.
Technically, Custody was made in a sober and realistic style. In lieu of a traditional score, Legrand pays attention to the sounds that surround the characters, which can sometimes seem alarming and menacing in the film’s complex sound design. Production designer Jeremie Sfez’ locations underline the anonymous, working-class setting of the story, which in turn suggests that it’s not the only such story happening in France today.
Production companies: KG Productions, France 3 Cinema
Cast: Lea Drucker, Denis Menochet, Thomas Gioria, Mathilde Auneveux, Mathieu Saikaly, Florence Janas, Saadia Bentaieb, Sophie Pincemaille, Emilie Incerti-Formentini
Writer-director: Xavier Legrand
Producer: Alexandre Gavras
Director of photography: Nathalie Durand
Production designer: Jeremie Sfez
Costume designer: Laurence Forgue-Lockhart
Editor: Yorgos Lamprimos
Casting: Youna de Peretti
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Celluloid Dreams
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