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A Child Custody Thriller

Custody 01

By Janine Gericke.

Xavier Legrand’s Custody (Jusqu’à La Garde) is a child-custody thriller. And, the word “thriller” doesn’t usually come to mind when thinking about custody battles. But, that’s just what this film is, a slow burn thriller with a hint of Night of the Hunter and a dash of The Shining. Those films are shown through the eyes of children – children in real danger. Custody takes the issues of domestic violence and the relationship children have with their parents and uses it to draw us in. It just happens to be terrifying.

Typically, a film’s opening scene sets up the mood and tone of the entire film, but this is not how Legrand opens his film. We don’t see the couple, Antoine and Miriam, played by Denis Ménochet and Léa Drucker, when they were still together and we don’t see the inside of a courtroom. Instead, the film begins with a 15-minute custody mediation scene. The scene is tightly framed, with the camera close up on each character. It creates a certain amount of tension, with the divorcing couple at the center, listening as each lawyer pleads for custody of their 12 year old son Julien (Thomas Gioria). Here we hear that the father may have violent tendencies, but without any proof. It is very much a he said/she said situation. That dry, lawyer-led custody debate is all the exposition we receive. Honestly, it’s a little hard to get into and I’ll admit that my eyelids grew a little heavy. Slowly though, the plot picks up pace and intensity.

As the film progresses, we begin to get our proof as the father loses his temper in front of his son, and we understand exactly why Julien doesn’t want to be around his father. He’s a bully. This is also where the film starts to take a turn. As we’re given proof of the father’s violence, it becomes increasingly more and more difficult to watch Custody. What will happen next? Will he hurt his son? What is he capable of? I’ll be honest, it was difficult to watch this film – to watch a volatile character interact with a defenseless child. You feel for Julien, he’s just a kid and he doesn’t deserve to have a father like this. It’s hard to watch any scenes with the father and son, you feel yourself flinch any time his father comes near his boy or on the verge of tears because of the way the father speaks to him. It hurts to see the absolute terror on Julien’s face, because he has no idea what could possibly happen next. I like difficult films but, at times, this was just too much for me. As far as building tension, legrand does a fantastic job, and it is definitely upsetting.

Custody 02Cinematographer Nathalie Durand has created some incredibly beautiful shots for Custody. The placement of the camera very much makes the viewer feel like a fly on the wall. We are not only watching this film, but we are spectators in every sense. We are seeing moments that we shouldn’t necessarily be able to see. There are also many long takes throughout the film, which play out seamlessly. Legrand and Durand play with light and sound to keep the film as organic as possible. The color palate of the film often time feels very cold. Increasingly, the film becomes darker and darker, visually and figuratively, culminating in the final scene.

One scene toward the end of the film involves Antoine and Miriam’s 18 year old daughter Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux) singing with a band at a party, performing a cover of Tina and Ike Turner’s Proud Mary, while her parents have a heated confrontation outside. Inside, the party is lively, everyone is dancing and having fun, but outside is dark and disturbing. As the daughter sings in front of the joyous crowd, she appears to be scared or at least incredibly uncomfortable. This is also the moment when we realize that the situation is not going to improve. That overwhelming feeling only grows stronger for everyone involved.

The end of the film, the culmination of every action, is best watched through your fingers with your hands covering your eyes. As I stated before, its hard to know where things will go while watching Custody, and this scene is the most horrific and unpredictable scene in a film filled with dread. The film ends with a door closing on both the family and on us. The spectacle is over and we are no longer welcome to watch. For me, this was a welcome reprieve. I didn’t particularly like this film, but it does a good job of building tension. I really don’t know if the ending is enough of a payoff, but it does stay with you long after viewing.

I’ll leave it at that. Maybe I watched it at the wrong time, or with the wrong frame of mind. Maybe it’s just hard to watch a story like this, with so many awful things constantly happening around us, it’s just too real. However, if you have the stomach, I would recommend a viewing. There are many things that work for the film.

Janine Gericke is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.

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