Trigger warning: this film contains scenes of domestic violence, which are discussed in this review.

The first fifteen minutes or so of Custody (Jusqu’à la garde in French, directed by Xavier Legrand) are a bit of a red herring in terms of what kind of films we’re going to get. In an ordinary meeting room, Miriam (Léa Drucker, Le Bureau des Légendes) and Antoine (Denis Ménochet, Inglorious Basterds), along with their respective black-gowned attorneys, present their cases before a slightly-exhausted looking judge and her assistant. They’re waiting for the judge to weigh their statements and make a decision, but they’re also making their cases to us, the audience, who are meeting them for the first time, and are, like the judge, hoping to glean as many truthful details as possible. Miriam and Antoine are acrimoniously divorced; Antoine wants partial custody of their pre-teen son Julien (Thomas Gioria), who has given a statement detailing his desire to never see his father again. (Elder daughter Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux), who also doesn’t want Antoine in her life, is old enough that the court can’t make her keep him there.) Miriam has accused Antoine of domestic violence against her and Josephine; she has accused him of stalking; Julien even volunteered to write a statement against his father; but Antoine is such a devoted father, such a respected man in his community, that the judge agrees to let Antoine have Julien on alternating weekends. Simple and cordial and civil enough—this first scene of Custody doesn’t exactly let on that it’s also a film where Antoine eventually pulls a gun on his wife and son.
It’s the abuser mentality: keep pushing the boundaries just a little bit each time, widening the category of what is acceptable in order to make inappropriate or cruel acts seem mundane or even normal, until he snaps. Antoine keeps making subtle, terrifying inroads into his family’s new life in ways that give the illusion of defensibility. In a move that precipitates the events of the film, Miriam moves to the town where her parents live to escape Antoine; cloaking his desire to control his family in paternal concern, Antoine moves jobs in order to be in the same city. Miriam doesn’t want him to call her and harass her (with good reason), so he sneaks into Julien’s book bag on a weekend he has custody and finds the cell number in his son’s notebook. A chance comment from Julien’s grandmother about how a mutual friend saw Julien and Josephine getting on a bus in a certain area of town provides Antoine with an opportunity to coerce Julian into telling him where they now live. In the latter two instances, all Julien can do is sit quietly, terrified, trying not to waver in order to protect his mother. His helplessness is horrifying and affecting; the close-up views from the camera telegraph his sense of dread whenever he has to see his father, and his defeat when he’s been manipulated into giving his father what he wants. 

Custody works most effectively in the scenes where Antoine’s mask of gentle resignation falls away. As he pulls up in front of Miriam’s parents’ home for the first time to pick up Julien, Miriam and Julien hopelessly try to beg off, claiming that Julien is sick. Julien shrinks away from his father’s hug, is largely non-responsive toward his paternal grandparents, who are housing Antoine, but it’s not until Antoine confronts Julien over his notebook that we see that it’s not a matter of miscommunication or misunderstanding, but that Antoine is a real threat to the safety of his wife and son. While the performances in Custody are all strong, relative newcomer Thomas Gioria runs away with the movie, especially in these tense, heart-stopping scenes, which Legrand’s observational direction captures perfectly. Legrand won the Silver Lion at Venice for this film, his debut feature, coming in second to Guillermo del Toro for The Shape of Water. A sequel to the director’s Oscar-nominated short film Just Before Losing Everything (2013), which also starred Ménochet, Drucker, and Avenaux, it’s not at all an easy film to watch.

Joséphine’s storyline, which mainly focuses on her troubling relationship with her boyfriend, feels tangential to the main narrative of Custody, as she’s largely an afterthought to Antoine. She’s almost more of a symbolic character than a real one—a representation of her mother’s fear that she will end up in a similarly unhealthy relationship. Desperate to get away from her family, Joséphine skips school and music conservatory lessons to see her boyfriend, largely existing on the periphery of the central Miriam-Antoine-Julien relationship until things come to a head at her birthday party. As Antoine shows up without being invited, turning the corner from fatherly concern to jealousy and violence as he throws Miriam against his car, Joséphine delivers a breathless, tearful rendition of “Proud Mary” to distract the guests in the dance hall. (It’s both ironic and weirdly appropriate that it’s the Ike and Tina Turner version of the song.)

The thing about watching a film like Custody in the United States—especially its climax—is that it will always feel horribly relevant. After slowly terrorizing his family, wheedling information out of Julien through a combination of menace and pure repetition, Antoine decides that if he can’t have his family back, they don’t get to be. As Miriam and Julien scream and cry, eventually huddling together in a bathtub at the directive of the French equivalent of 9-11, Antoine assaults the front door of the apartment Miriam hoped would allow her and her children to escape him, eventually firing his rifle. The link between domestic/family violence and mass shootings in the United States has been well-documented, and it’s all too easy to imagine Antoine following his attack on his family with one in a more public sphere. As I write this review, Los Angeles is reeling from a shooting in a Silver Lake Trader Joe’s that left a woman dead; the shooter apparently had shot his own grandmother several times, then forced his girlfriend into his car before going to Trader Joe’s and taking hostages. By the time this review is published, there might well be another incident where a man, feeling spurned and rejected and denied, turns his anger outward, deciding that the world needs to suffer.