CUSTODY (Jusqu’a La Garde). Starring: Denis Menochet, Lea Drucker, Thomas Gioria, and Mathilde Auneveux. Directed by Xavier Legrand. Rated M (Mature themes, violence, and coarse language). 94 min.

This subtitled French drama tells the story of an alienated couple and their young son, who are caught in a custody battle. The film won the Silver Lion for Best  Direction for Xavier Legrand at the 2017 Venice Film Festival.

Antoine Besson (Denis Menochet), and his wife, Miriam (Lea Drucker), are separated, awaiting divorce, and both want custody of their 11-year old son, Julien (Thomas Gioria). Miriam claims that Antoine is violent towards her and Julien, and Antoine claims that Miriam has turned Julien against him and is a vindictive mother. The judge in charge of the custody proceedings is not sure who is telling the truth, and gives custody of Julien to both parents. Antoine is respected at work and is liked by his employer. At home, he is feared by his wife, his son, and Julien’s older sister, Josephine (Mathilda Auneveux). Miriam has never lodged a complaint against Antoine, fearing that doing so would make things worse for her and her two children.

The film bears relatively little relationship to custody movies, like “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979), in which the legal rights of people caught in custody battles are debated in fine detail. This movie focuses distinctively on the impact of physical abuse on members of a fractured family in crisis.

Julien is constantly stressed by his father, and fiercely protective of his mother. The film quickly becomes a terrifying portrayal of a father’s rage, and its effect on a young boy who doesn’t know what to do about it. In court, the film avoids flashbacks that give an unambiguous answer to the judge’s uncertainty, and it concentrates on events after the judge’s decision is made.

The essential focus of the movie is on the complexity of the factors that contribute to Antoine’s physical violence. Julien hates his father and understandably recoils physically and emotionally from any contact with him, and his anger builds up to the point where his father terrifies him. The stress that Julien is under, turns him from being a child who has bouts of happiness to someone unbelievably unhappy about what his father has done, and could soon be doing again. Julien  isolates his father psychologically and this in turn reinforces the dynamics underlying Antoine’s abuse. Antoine communicates anger and resentment more, as Julien’s frustration escalates.

The film is a nuanced exploration of the dynamics of physical abuse, and the abuse is intertwined with scenes that help explain the nature of it. Legrand’s direction is highly astute and wonderfully controlled.The film is extremely well-acted, especially by Thomas Gioria as Julien, and Denis Menochet as Antoine, and the film’s cinematography closely parallels its plot line. In the opening courtroom scene, for instance, the camera flits to and fro, creating uncertainty about who is to blame, but when the conditions of custody begin, the camera targets the mental anguish of each member of the family and the ensuing crisis ensnares both characters and viewers alike.

The film is utterly devoid of sentimentality, and deals with emotions in a very matter-of-fact way. As a result, its images have devastating impact. Julien’s fierce determination to be protected, and to protect his mother, ends in an emotional climax which takes the film deep into thriller mode, as Antoine stalks his wife and son in the darkness of Miriam’s apartment, with a rifle in his hand.

The movie has three penetrating themes: the anguish of those who are physically abused in the family unit; the impact of abuse on a child who is terrified of his parent; and the anguish of a man who believes falsely and immorally that his wife and children are his to do whatever he desires. From about 15 minutes into this film, the threat of the presence of Antoine and the possibility of his abusing again never leaves the screen for a moment, and the effects of that are stunning.

Xavier Legrand has delivered to us a harrowing film of superb quality, that is a must-see.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Palace Films

Released September 27th., 2018

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