Disturbing but undeniably gripping, French film “Custody” chillingly examines the problematic family relationship among its main characters. Right from its opening scene, we sense a trouble coming from the distance, and then the movie gradually dials up its level of suspense while more tightly grabbing our attention via a number of emotionally intense moments which will definitely scare and overwhelm you a lot. In my inconsequential opinion, this is surely one of the most terrifying movie experiences in this year, and you will not easily forget it after being knocked down by its sheer psychological terror.
During the opening scene, we meet Miriam (Léa Drucker) and Antoine (Denis Ménochet), a recently divorced couple who is going through a legal procedure for the custody of one of their two children. While their daughter Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux) can live with her mother as she wants because she becomes 17 years old at present, their 11-year-old son Julien (Thomas Gioria) is not legally allowed to make his own choice, so the judge presiding over Miriam and Antoine’s case will decide what is the best for Julien after hearing the respective arguments from both sides.
As both Miriam’s lawyer and Antoine’s lawyer try their best to persuade the judge, it becomes apparent to us that Antoine is not a very good father and husband to his family. Although he may be sincere in his attempt to remain close to his ex-wife and their children, his wife clearly does not want to see him again, and neither do their children. There is an alarming medical report which indicates that he possibly inflicted a serious physical injury on his daughter a few years ago, and Julien always refers to his father as “that person” as shown from his written testimony. In addition, Miriam talks about how abusive and obsessive her husband can be, but there is no concrete evidence on that, and, not so surprisingly, Antoine denies everything she says in front of the judge.
It is eventually decided that Julien should spend every second weekend with his father, so we soon see Antoine waiting outside the house of Miriam’s parents, where she and her children currently are staying. As Julien is not very willing to go outside and see his father, Miriam tries to persuade her ex-husband to leave his son alone this time, but Antoine remains inflexible, and Miriam has no choice but to follow what is ordered by the judge.
Now some of you may still have some reasonable doubt, but the movie soon makes a very clear point on how much Miriam and her children want to stay away from Antoine. Antoine tries a bit to be nice to his son at first, but it does not take much time for us to see that he is indeed an abusive bully as his ex-wife said, and we according get several cringe-inducing scenes as Julien quietly and desperately tries to endure his obligatory time with his father. When they come to the house of Antoine’s parents, the mood becomes a little brightened as Antoine’s parents do their best for cheering up their grandson, but there is a palpable sense of awkwardness among them, and then there comes an unnerving moment when Antoine secretly searches through his son’s backpack and then is reminded of how much he is disliked by his son.
Meanwhile, Miriam tries to begin an independent life free from her ex-husband. Thanks to her supportive sister, she can find a modest but cozy place for her and her children, and there is a small sweet moment as Julien and Joséphine playfully bicker over a room they both want. Believing that she is ready to enter adulthood, Joséphine wants to go further with her boyfriend, but Miriam wants her daughter to think more seriously about her life and career, and then there comes a calm but dramatically tense scene where Joséphine checks a certain physiological condition of her body in private. As the camera remains in its static position, nothing much is revealed via its limited viewpoint, but we cannot help but curious about what Joséphine is seeing – and how exactly she feels at that point.
As we come to wonder and worry more about what may happen next among its main characters, the movie carefully accumulates tension on the screen, and there inevitably comes a point where the circumstance becomes quite more serious than before. As Antoine shows more of his dark side, Miriam and Julian find themselves thrown into their old fear and dread again, and everything in the story eventually culminates to a striking sequence which will tighten up your body as reminding you of “The Shining” (1980) for a good reason.
I later came to learn that the movie is a sequel to director/writer Xavier Legrand’s Oscar-nominated short film “Just Before Losing Everything” (2013). I have not watched that short film yet, but I can tell you instead that I admire a lot how masterfully Legrand handles his story and characters here in this debut feature film of his, and I have already decided to check out his short film as soon as possible for getting to know a little more about his characters.
Legrand also did a good job of drawing pitch-perfect performances from his main cast members. While Denis Ménochet, who was memorable in the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (2009), is aggressive and menacing without any sign of overacting, Léa Drucker and Mathilde Auneveux are equally convincing in their respective roles, and Thomas Gioria deserves to be praised for holding his position well during his several demanding scenes with Ménochet.
“Custody”, which won the Silver Lion award for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival in last year, is not a pleasant movie at all, but it powerfully engaged me and then unsettled me as I watched it along with other audiences during this Saturday evening. We were all very quiet when the light was turned on after the movie was over, and its very last shot lingered on my mind for a while as I came out of the screening room. Is it finally over for them? It seemed so to me at first, but, to be frank with you, now I am not that sure as reflecting more on what will probably remain with them for the rest of their life.