An astonishingly tense drama from first time director Xavier Legrand following an acrimonious custody battle with a young boy caught in the middle between his dysfunctional parents
The opening of Xavier Legrand’s debut feature is a brief and rapid-fire custody hearing, with the judge asking questions like “Which of you is the bigger liar?” It’s a bracing question that leads us to study the characters very carefully in the slower, more static consequent scenes, as Léa Drucker and Denis Ménochet's characters tussle for time with their two kids, particularly the pre-teen boy played by newcomer Thomas Gioria. He’s the most vulnerable and stuck in the middle, while the teenage daughter, played by Mathilde Auneveux, can feel herself on the verge of adulthood, ready to escape into a destiny of her own making.
“We have an hour, because I picked you up an hour late,” says Ménochet in one of the visits, tipping us off to the kind of petty score-keeping that dominates this bitter fight. He claims to want to know where his kids are living, but when he’s with the boy, he doesn’t seem to show much interest in him. Legrand generates an astonishing amount of tension in these scenes, holding tight on the child’s discomfort, and when Custody explodes into rages, it’s likely your stomach will clench up with anxiety.
It’s an effective film, then, but one that seems to promise an investigation into the complexities of emotional violence, and decides to go in a different direction. Rather than investigate the tangle of how a marriage broke down and how worst selves can get the better of a relationship, the story unfolds as a one-sided reveal of one impulsive partner’s abusiveness – a valid and recognisable tale, but one whose stalking rampages end up feeling more like a manipulative horror-thriller than the drama of shattered emotion that was hinted at in the beginning. [Ian Mantgani]
Custody screens at Glasgow Film Festival: Tue 27 Feb, GFT, 8.40pm | Wed 28 Feb, GFT, 3.50pm
Released in the UK 13 Apr by Picturehouse