Harrowing family affair

Julien (Gioria)



94 minutes/Now showing

4.5 stars

The story: Miriam ( Lea Drucker) and Antoine (Denis Menochet) are getting divorced. She wants full custody of both children, suggesting that Antoine is abusive but offers no proof, so the judge offers him weekend time with young son Julien (Thomas Gioria).

It opens with a scene at family court. Miriam (Drucker), Antoine (Menochet) and their lawyers are pleading with the judge. The tone is low-key but intense; the judge is doing her best to pick out factual information in a situation foggy with "he said, she said" reports.

Writer-director Xavier Legrand knows how to do family court. In the style of Iranian dramas like A Separation (2011), a well-written round of argument is not just pyrotechnics. It bares the guts of a dying marriage, displays the characters of the man and woman, and foreshadows events to come.

And what follows is some of the most harrowing cinema this reviewer has seen this year. Antoine gets custody of Julien by arguing that every boy needs a male figure in his life and he has the papers to prove it: He has quit his job and moved to be closer to his son's new home and his friends and former colleagues have written glowing testimonials to his character.

As an actor, Menochet is best known outside of France for his part in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (2009). He is the farmer interrogated by the German officer, played by Christoph Waltz in a breakout role. In Custody, Menochet uses his bear-like body and deadpan expression effectively. There is a bottled-up rage in him that makes every scene a nail-biter.

But the scene-stealer here is Julien (Gioria), the boy who is the only link between Antoine and the woman he blames for his every inadequacy. As the psychological screws turn on Julien, he is not just anxious; he lives in a constant state of terror, one that is devastating to watch.

This is Legrand's debut feature and he has reaped awards at festivals in Venice and Zurich, among many others, and deservedly so.

The film builds up to an ending which some might consider pulpy and overblown, but Legrand has laid the foundations well and fully deserves his final chapter, which is both emotionally satisfying and explains why, in cases of parental abuse, the victim's feelings of shame make it happen over and over.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 02, 2018, with the headline 'Harrowing family affair'. Print Edition | Subscribe