Xavier Legrand’s Oscar-nominated 2013 short film, Just Before Losing Everything, was a riveting drama about Miriam (Léa Drucker in an Oscar-worthy performance), escaping her abusive husband Antoine (Denis Ménochet), and taking their two children, Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux) and Julien (Miljan Châtelain), with her.
Custody, Legrand’s taut and masterful first feature, depicts the same characters in a not dissimilar scenario. The film opens with Miriam and Antoine (played again by Drucker and Ménochet) in a courtroom where she wants full custody of Joséphine (Auneveux) and Julien (Tomas Gioria, a find, replacing Châtelain). A statement by Julien, read in the hearing, suggests Antoine has been harassing. Miriam also claims—but cannot produce evidence of—domestic abuse. Antoine, however, says his wife is keeping their children from him, and he should have rights to see them. Because Joséphine is turning 18, Julien becomes the pawn between the parents.
Things quickly get messy—but absorbing—as lies and truths are revealed, and characters (both young and old) manipulate things for their own ends. The judge allows for Antoine to see Julien, but Julien doesn’t want to go. How the father and son spend their time together is revealing. The contempt Julien shows for his father is palpable, and his facial expressions and body language in the car with his father are suitably cringe-inducing. Moreover, how Miriam tries to protect herself and her family from Antoine is telling.
Custody gets more nerve-wracking when Antoine—who has not been able to connect with the elusive Miriam—discovers where she and the kids are living. “I should know where my kids live,” he declares—and perhaps he is right, the film’s poker-faced approach suggests. After all, Antoine may not have been a good husband, but does that mean he is also a bad father? He does tell Miriam he has changed. Can she trust him?
As viewers ponder these ideas, Legrand sets up the third act of his film, and it is as relentless as his short. At a party, where Joséphine sings “Proud Mary”—perhaps a curious choice, but Tina Turner was abused—Miriam meets Antoine in the venue’s parking lot and things between them escalate. This lengthy episode is followed by a riveting sequence that justifies Legrand’s entire slow-burn approach to the story.
Again, Drucker is Oscar-worthy, and Gioria is equally commendable. A scene of them in a bathtub is absolutely stunning. Ménochet does well with his tricky role, alternating between being sympathetic and fearsome, and Auneveux has a remarkable scene that unfolds entirely behind the door of a toilet stall.
Custody deliberately keeps viewers on tenterhooks as the story plays out to its spellbinding conclusion. In expanding upon his short, Legrand has made a feature that improves upon the original.
Custody opens in Philly theaters today.