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European films

Custody film review: riveting French family drama takes a horrifying look at domestic abuse

With Custody, French director Xavier Legrand has created an utterly painful, yet also thoroughly believable, tale of family disintegration, while the actors are perfect in their portrayals of a family being torn apart from the inside out

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 March, 2018, 7:03pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 March, 2018, 7:02pm

3.5/5 stars

The spectre of a violent ex-husband looms large over his former spouse and young son in this terrifying family drama by the French writer-director Xavier Legrand, who won the best director and best debut prizes at last year’s Venice film festival.

Custody is the sequel to Legrand’s 2013 short Just Before Losing Everything (receiver of an Oscar nod and a César award), which tells the story of how the married couple in question break up. The sequel reopens the barely healed wounds in the heart of single mother Miriam (Léa Drucker), who must think she has left her nightmare behind when she divorces her abusive husband, Antoine (Denis Ménochet).

However, the routine joint-custody hearing at the film’s start – presided over by a judge (Saadia Bentaieb) who must decide which of the clients and lawyers are lying through their teeth – throws her life into disarray again.

Despite their 12-year-old son Julien (Thomas Gioria) pleading to never see his father again, Antoine is, somewhat arbitrarily, granted regular weekend visits. The couple’s daughter, Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux), is spared the ordeal as she has reached legal age. But it still means that every effort has to be made by Miriam to hide her family’s actual residential address, and every visit by Antoine is met with intense fear on Julien’s part.

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A domestic drama that will cause great distress in spite of its naturalistic setting, Custody reveals the horrifying nature of Ménochet’s deceptively sympathetic character with both nuance and admirable patience. Ostensibly a repentant father and husband who wants nothing more than to reunite with his family, Antoine’s impulsive and devious nature is gradually glimpsed in small doses during his visits to his elderly parents with Julien in tow.

And the less said about the nerve-wrecking final act, the better. Suffice to say that Legrand has created an utterly painful, yet also thoroughly believable, tale of family disintegration. The trio of Ménochet, Drucker are Gioria are perfect in their portrayals of a family being torn apart from the inside out. I would not be too surprised if Legrand goes on to establish himself as one of France’s leading filmmakers.

Custody opens on March 29

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