“Custody” is a time bomb of the most devastating sort. The ticking starts slowly, almost imperceptibly, but it never lets up, never stops inexorably increasing in volume, until a conclusion as devastating as it is inevitable.
As written and directed by French filmmaker Xavier Legrand in a formidable feature debut that won the Venice film festival’s Silver Lion for director, “Custody” doesn’t contain an actual bomb. Instead it is people who are explosive, who threaten everything in their path.
Legrand has said in interviews that films as diverse as “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Night of the Hunter” and “The Shining” informed what he has accomplished here, something he characterizes as “the kind of cinema which involves spectators by playing with their intelligence and nerves.”
For a film that becomes increasingly nerve-racking and tension filled, “Custody” — as its name implies — begins simply enough with a custody hearing filmed in real time in a small judicial chamber in an unnamed French city.
The judge in charge, a firm, no-nonsense woman (Saadia Bentaieb), sits on one side of a table, faced by Antoine (Denis Menochet) and Miriam (Lea Drucker) and their articulate, dueling attorneys.
Separated for a year, the burly, agitated Antoine and the thin, distraught Miriam have two children, one of whom, soon-to-be-18 Josephine (Mathilde Auneveux), is too close to being an adult to be of judicial concern.
That leaves 11-year-old Julien (Thomas Gioria ), currently living with his mother but the object of a petition for joint custody by his father.
After the judge reads a statement by Julien, who says he doesn’t want to see his father because “he wants to hurt my mother,” Miriam’s attorney (Sophie Pincemaille) follows up, talking about violent behavior on Antoine’s part.
But Antoine’s attorney (Emilie Incerti-Formentini) smoothly counters that the talk of violence is just hearsay, not backed up by evidence or witnesses.
When Miriam plaintively says “we just want peace,” Antoine counters by insisting “I won’t abandon my son.” No wonder the judge fixes both husband and wife with a gimlet eye and says the question facing her is “which of you is the biggest liar.”
It is one of the triumphs of “Custody,” however, to devastatingly demonstrate that even the people whose actions prove to be horrific and indefensible never actually feel they’re lying.
Drucker, who is perhaps best known in this country for her role in the French TV series “The Bureau,” captures both Miriam’s fragility and her strength. The plausibility of Menochet’s remarkable range, from total fury to abject tears, is essential for “Custody’s” success.
Director Legrand, who as a child actor starred in Louis Malle’s “Au Revoir les Enfants,” proves a master here of serious, uncompromising drama. His film crackles with low key but intense emotional involvement.
“Custody” can be difficult, even wrenching to watch, but it always plays fair with the audience, and the experience, worth every minute expended, is impossible to forget.
Starring Denis Menochet, Lea Drucker and Thomas Gloria. Directed by Xavier Legrand.
Unrated. Check listings for theaters. 1 hour, 33 minutes.
Bottom line: Drama over custody of an 11-year-old is wrenching to watch, but plays fair
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