‘Jusqu'à la garde’
– Xavier Legrand, France, 2017
This is a follow-on from Legrand’s 2014 short film ‘Just Before Losing Everything’ (‘Avant Que De Tout Perdre’ – whose trailer easily taps dread), which I had not seen and did not know of, so I was in the same position as the judge at the beginning of ‘Custody’ that presides over the case. “Which of you is the biggest liar?” she asks, and indeed I wasn’t sure either. At one point the possibility that the son was actually playing both sides seemed open to me. But it’s not those particular mind-games that the film is ultimately interested in playing (indeed, the trailer commendably keeps an air of ambiguity).
Rather it is the psychological and the emotional tensions of weekend visits with dad that are most at play. Anyone who was a kid caught in an uncomfortable divorce – not even abusive – can relate to the excruciating experience of feeling trapped in a car with a difficult parent. And making you feel all this tension is Thomas Giora as Julien, who, in an all-round impressive ensemble piece, is exemplary. As the son, he doesn’t get to say so much, but it’s his experience that mostly guides the film and he expresses a lot, letting all the emotions flicker over his face as we watch him suffer and internalise stress as he wonders what he should do. The restraint and naturalism that permeates the film avoids making Denis Ménochet as Antoine – Julien’s father – just a cartoon villain: he plays the victim in embarrassing and frightening displays of self-pity, and he lashes out from time to time, but the tension is waiting to see just how far he’ll go. His swings between moderation and control and victimhood and hints of violence keep everyone on screen and in the audience on edge. He is recognisable and mundane in his moodswings and manipulations and this makes him far more recogniseable and troubling than a more incarnation of aggrieved masculinity like ‘The Stepfather’. Wendy Ide writes,
Once you see him as a threat, you can’t unsee it. This is not a problem with Ménochet’s performance necessarily, rather a consequence of the narrow timeframe that focuses on the final crash and burn of family relations. But it does become a challenge to see the man behind the monstrous grudge.
But that’s maybe the point: the monstrous grudge is all Antoine chooses to be. When vengeance and grudge narratives are so culturally dominant, here is a reminder of the shocking pettiness when this carries over to mundane reality. This drama of wounded people trapped in emotional turmoil bears the tone of Andrey Zvyagintsev and bears the same sense of people emoting without everything being revealed and obvious. And then, the film slides into horror.
If anything is the raw stuff that the horror genre draws from, abusive family dramas are primary sources. All those Ids, all those monsters, all that feeling of helplessness: horror thrives on these elements and they are fundamental to painful domestic environments. All that trauma. All that potential for violence. If ‘Custody’ says anything it is how the commonplace miseries and disputes of our lives can descend into true horror. We have only to turn to headlines and friends to hear such stories. The question may be does the film use horror motifs or does genre obtain its motifs from such moments? A film like ‘Cape Fear’ turns up the genre aesthetics whereas a film like ‘Elephant’ keeps a step back, undoubtedly horrific but tethered to underplayed drama. ‘Custody’ is dour and restrained without being depressing, because the thriller tensions are always the undercurrent. It manages to stay quiet for the length before turning it up when all the previous screw-turning makes the whole thing cave in. It’s a masterful play and makes this a drama that is not likely to be shaken quickly.