Custody (‘Jusqu’à la Garde’)

DRAMA; 1hr 33min (French with subtitles)

STARRING: Denis Ménochet, Léa Drucker, Thomas Gioria

Driven: Gioria (left) and Menochet

Writer-director Xavier Legrand’s confronting debut feature grabs the hot-potato topic of domestic violence and runs to the depths of hell with it. Opening with a businesslike judicial hearing, in which lawyers for estranged couple Antoine and Miriam Besson (Ménochet and Drucker) do professionally brisk battle over the fate of the Bessons’ 11-year-old son, Julian (Gioria), the fallout pivots with excruciating care to the truth of the person Antoine really is, despite his persuasive case for joint custody.


Played by Ménochet with heavy-eyed menace, Antoine permeates even the scenes in which he doesn’t appear, simply because he could. He’s a wounded snake constantly poised to strike: unsurprisingly, torn between fear and revulsion, his two children want nothing to do with him. (Although Julian’s older sister, Josephine [Mathilde Auneveux], is technically free and clear at age 18, she, too, is facing her own consequences of abuse.) For her unenviable part, Miriam is a solemn warrior in the face of the mental, physical and emotional assaults she was powerless to prevent over the years she endured them. Which leaves a defensive and protective Julian struggling to bear the brunt of a load no child should feel compelled to carry.


Legrand’s take on this combustible blend is disarmingly devoid of swelling mood music and fancy visual footwork. The camera is a detached observer, frequently in close-up on the expressionless Antoine and his increasingly traumatised son, its restrained efficiency in graphic contrast to a torment that has no need for embellishment. Between that uncomfortable proximity and performances vibrating through a spectrum of pain, Antoine, Miriam and Julian’s inescapable descent is as close as anyone would wish to come to the twisted psyche of a tyrant.