A menacing drama about domestic terrorism closes the Venice Film Festival’s Competition section


Dir. Xavier Legrand. France. 2017. 94 minutes.

An almost unbearably-tense, no-holds-barred drive through the nightmare of domestic terrorism, Custody is a can’t-look-away hybrid of gruelling reality and heightened cinematic technique. The mix is jarring, as intended, and this wrenching, heart-stopping film illustrates domestic violence and obsession in a way that makes the fear real. Yet the director also cites The Shining and Kramer Vs. Kramer amongst his influences, and they’re easily identified here too. This is a dynamic feature debut from France’s Xavier Legrand which bows in Competition at Venice, the last film to kick the festival home to a gripping close.

Denis Menochet, Lea Drucker and Thomas Gioria give their all to this tough chamber-like piece

Denis Menochet’s bullying, paranoid Antoine is the hulking heart of Custody, but as his young son Julien, newcomer Thomas Gioria also holds his own. The film starts slowly as downbeat verite: viewers might easily be forgiven for asking why they should put themselves through such a grim experience. But Custody has a rhythm: one that should pound its way into festival screenings and art-house distribution, where it will remain a byword for domestic violence.

The film starts at a magistrate’s court, where Antoine and his wife Miriam (Lea Drucker), with their representatives, are engaged in a bitter custody battle. The couple’s older daughter Josephine (Mathilde Auneveux) is of an age where she can make her own decisions – and she chooses not to have anything to do with Antoine – but the fate of Julien is at stake. Statements are made and the situation seems opaque: manipulation is afoot, clearly. Could Miriam have instigated her young son’s insistent desire not to see his father? Somebody is lying to the judge, who makes an abrupt decision with far-reaching consequences.

As Antoine starts to exercise his parental rights over the young boy - to the child’s obvious dread - Custody is barely watchable: the distress shown by young actor Gioria is anxiety-inducing and almost too raw and real for a film. But all the while, Menochet’s Antoine is beginning to reveal himself, and it’s a familiar portrait to anyone who has ever encountered obsession and domestic violence. Soon, Custody is only watchable through your fingers, as Legrand begins to apply home invasion aspects to his drama and everyone becomes short of breath, the viewer included.

Menochet, Drucker and Gioria give their all to this chamber-like piece, which is a thematic progression of the director’s short  Just Before Losing Everything.. For the most part it’s a claustrophobic film, whether that be in court, the passenger seat of Antoine’s vehicle or the interior of the apartment to which Miriam has fled. Menochet is unafraid to give vent to his character’s inner rage, while Drucker is the victim who knows there’s nothing she can do in the face of such a sustained onslaught. Gioria, as well, conveys how the children involved can feel a crippling culpability. In one dramatic set-piece, Custody breaks out into a birthday party; the fact that this celebration also ends up filled with airless dread illustrates how life lived in the shadow of domestic violence is small and endlessly oppressed.

Nathalie Durand’s camera feels suitably oppressed in these close confines, while editor Yorgis Lamprinos has a deft command of pace as the thriller elements ratched up. While the word “exciting” doesn’t feel like the right word for such a tough drama, it’s certainly perfect as a description of Legrand’s debut as a feature-length director and original screenplay author.

Production company: KG Productions

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Producer: Alexandre Gravas

Screenplay: Xavier Legrand

Cinematography: Nathalie Durand

Production design: Jeremie Sfetz

Editor: Yorgos Lamprinos

Main cast: Denis Menochet, Lea Drucker, Thomas Giroria, Mathilde Auneveux