‘If you love something, let it go’, the saying goes. By that metric, brutish father and estranged husband Antoine (Denis Menochet) has no love left in him for the family that is attempting to escape. Whether it’s through emotional blackmail, interrogating children, or simply a vice-like physical grip, Antoine holds onto his ex-wife Miriam (Lea Drucker) and terrified offspring like a predator desperate for a meal. His campaign of harassment and terror forms the backbone of Custody’s story, making for one of the most boldly hateful lead characters in recent memory, a bravura performance matched by a sensational breakout turn from child actor Thomas Gioria as 11 year old Julien.
It’s joint custody of Julien for which Antoine is filing – his daughter Josephine (Mathilde Auneveux) is turning 18, old enough to escape the hostilities – and his shrewd lawyer wins it for him in a mediation hearing. It’s a scene full of very dense dialogue, and as Antoine’s lawyer makes his case, the judge is drawn in by it, even if the audience can see his true goals. He’s not seeking to take care of his child out of love, but wants to rip him away from his mother out of spite.
The first weekend that Julien and Antoine spend together is horribly stressful and anxious. Debut writer-director Xavier Legrand keeping his focus on the tight, trapped spaces that Antoine’s bear-like frame effortlessly fills, blurring the line between the parental and imprisoned definitions of ‘custody’. It would be uncomfortable regardless, but Gioria’s performance elevates to a place of sickening distress. It’s an incredibly grown up piece of work, Gioria utterly convincing in even the most invasive of close-ups, as Julien has to quickly learn to strategise how best to keep his father at bay and his mother safe. So much of the film rests on Gioria, and Legrand’s Best Director prize at Venice is more than earned for coaxing this performance out of him.
There isn’t a weak link amongst the cast, and though Josephine’s almost entirely subtextual subplot does peter out somewhat, Auneveux is afforded one astonishing moment performing ‘Proud Mary’ at a party. The song seems to go on endlessly, even though Josephine would so clearly rather be elsewhere, and her attempts to disguise her feelings are brutally upsetting. The strength of the central performances are Custody’s greatest asset, selling every moment even as the plot takes some predictable, over-dramatic turns.
There’s no question as to which parent is more fit, nor even any doubt that Antoine is an utter monster, so, for its central dramatic thrust, the film has to follow its logic of ever-worsening assaults on the family to an explosive end that doesn’t quite ring true. That’s not to say that it isn’t heart-stopping in the moment though, a tense and oddly cathartic climax to 90 minutes of horribly believable stress.