“Nothing here is black and white,” says a lawyer at the onset of this riveting French drama, a portrait of an acrimonious custody battle viewed from the perspective of the 12-year-old boy caught in the middle. Indeed, nothing is straightforward in Xavier Legrand’s compelling first feature, which has us alternately siding with and against its young hero’s parents, as they negotiate the aftermath of a painful marital breakdown.
Justly awarded prizes at the Venice and San Sebastian film festivals, and screened to acclaim at London and Toronto, the film opens with a custody hearing to settle the immediate future of Julien (Thomas Gioria). At one end of the table sits his mother, Miriam (Léa Drucker), who claims her ex-husband was violent, but lacks the evidence to back it up. At the other sits his father, Antoine (Denis Ménochet), who seems bewildered by the way in which he has been portrayed, and who accuses Miriam of manipulating Julien to win sole guardianship.
Both sides seem to be concealing something, from the presiding judge and from the audience. What this is only becomes clear after joint custody has been awarded, and the estranged couple made to cooperate for the good of their child. This is hardly made easy by the reservoirs of ill-feeling that remain between them, and Miriam’s curious insistence on withholding the location of the new home she shares with their son and 17-year-old daughter, Josephine (Mathilde Auneveux). Antoine, meanwhile, feels increasingly bitter and isolated, a state of affairs worsened by the fact that Julien clearly prefers to be anywhere else than in his company.
Legrand introduced this fractured family in Just Before Losing Everything, a 2013 short that earned him an Oscar nomination the following year. Custody, however, takes the drama, tension and intrigue to a different level, as it builds inexorably towards a thrilling climax that will have viewers on the edge of their seats. As both a writer and director, Legrand brings an authenticity and truth to the material that has seen him favourably compared to the Dardenne brothers and Michael Haneke. His experience as an actor, meanwhile, ensures startlingly convincing performances from the whole cast, including a remarkable turn from Gioria,
a picture of innocence whose sullen silence speaks volumes about Julien’s impossibly divided loyalties.
As Custody unfolds, it is quickly apparent that we are witnessing the emergence of a striking new cinematic voice, whose slow-burn storytelling and ability to craft suspense make for essential and unmissable viewing. This is destined to be one of the most talked-about films of the year.