A few years back, French director Xavier Legrand made a compelling short film called Just Before Losing Everything
about a woman escaping an unhappy marriage with her kids. The film not only earned Legrand an Academy Award nomination for Best Live Action Short Film, but also inspired him to explore the characters more fully in a feature length movie. That movie is Custody
is about a woman named Miriam Besson (Léa Drucker from In My Skin
) who is trapped in a bitter custody battle with her ex-husband Antoine (Denis Ménochet from 7 Days in Entebbe
). Although Miriam and Antoine also have a daughter named Joséphine (The Adulteen
's Mathilde Auneveux), the main crux of the custody disagreement is over their young son, Julien (newcomer Thomas Gioria). The judge is unable to determine which parent is lying during the custody hearing, so joint custody is awarded, and Antoine is able to take Julien on unsupervised outings. Whenever they're together, however, Antoine uses the time to pry information out of the boy about his mom, turning their visits into tense psychological ordeals. Soon enough, it becomes clear that the unstable Antoine wants more than to just be a part of his son's life.
There's an interesting pacing to Custody
that may turn some people off. It starts out with a seemingly never-ending custody hearing scene, and slowly gains speed over the course of its hour-and-a-half running time, sort of like the film is coasting on a bicycle down a hill that is gradually getting steeper as it goes on. By the time it hits its shocking climax, Custody
's momentum is impossible to slow down as it careens out of control, steamrolling its way to its inevitable conclusion.
Writer/director Xavier Legrand has gone on record as saying that his cinematic influences for Custody are Kramer vs. Kramer
, The Night of the Hunter
, and The Shining
. Although different in style, these movies all share the theme of familial imbalance, and their separate influences are evident in the different stages of Custody
. The first act, where much of the background is being established, follows the Kramer vs. Kramer
mold. The second act, during which Antoine is using Julien to gather information about Miriam, is where the film switches to The Night of the Hunter
. And finally, during the explosive third act, Custody
goes full The Shining
In addition to the strange pacing and schizophrenic structure, Custody
also has issues with improbable scenarios and unexplored subplots. But taken as what it is, it's an engaging enough movie. It takes some patience, because the beginning is glacially paced, but the effort is well rewarded as it goes on. It's not quite the family drama that it pretends to be, but it's no horror flick, either. Custody
walks the line between the two, and it does so very well.
There seems to be this new trend in foreign films in general (and French films in particular) where they'll use long, silent takes to let the story elements unfold organically without the artificiality and manufacturedness of editing. This is a stylistic decision that Xavier Legrand and cinematographer Nathalie Durand (Le Week-End
) employ to great effect in Custody
. Aside from the diegetic music on the soundtrack, there is no score to the film, so all of the viewer's attention hangs on the visuals. In some scenes, Durand places her camera on the floor peeping under bathroom stalls at feet or straps it to the backseat of a car peering through the front windshield, sort of letting the lens become a fly on the wall so it can soak up the plot points. In others, Durand takes a page out of the Scorsese/Altman handbook and follows characters around at parties or other social situations, letting the camera become an extra character and allowing it to witness the action as an active participant. Both of these photographic techniques help build tension and craft suspense in ways that are simultaneously active and passive. Plus, and possibly most importantly, the cinematography gives Custody
a unique look that helps it stand out from the average arthouse film.