Behind Closed Doors: Xavier Legrand’s Custody

In the opening scene of Xavier Legrand’s Custody, we are told the story of a marriage from two opposing sides. Antoine (Denis Ménochet) and Mariam (Lea Drucker) are going through divorce proceedings, and during this custody hearing are joined by a judge and their respective lawyers. A letter written by the couple’s young son Julien hints that Antoine is temperamental, and a story by Mariam about how he injured their older daughter Josephine backs this up. But Antoine’s friends and colleagues have sold him as a stand-up guy, and his demeanour in the hearing is calm and collected; the only thing shining through is his desire to be back in his son’s life. Why would the bully Mariam presents us with want his son back so badly if he was the monster she claims he is? 


In its first stages Custody refrains from telling us which story to fully buy into; Antoine, Mariam and the whole family are closed off to the audience, and we learn scene-by-scene what the situation truly is and with whom our sympathies should be placed. Domestic abuse takes place behind closed doors, and it isn’t until we are allowed behind them that we see the extent of what Antoine is capable of. Doors, and what lies behind them, are important in Legrand’s film. The opening and closing of doors in the film is given a great amount of attention both from the camera and the characters on either side; gates and car-doors are frequently slammed in anger, neighbours anxiously crack open theirs to spy on the drama, and significantly two are locked in the heart stopping climax. 


It is an obvious statement to call Ménochet’s Antoine a monstrous brute, and while his domineering physical presence and his hard-as-stone glare are used effectively, Antoine is perhaps the most complex character on screen. He is all at once a pathetic schlub, a master of manipulation and a violently unpredictable time-bomb. Miriam cannot prove any of this to the judge, as is so common with domestic abuse cases. There is no hard evidence to back her claims. The film trickles Antoine’s true nature through moments during his weekends with Julien, but his rage, his violence and his drive to gain mental and physical control over his family are made apparent soon enough.

Similarly to Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless, a young boy of pure innocence is put between a battling couple mid-divorce. While Alyosha in that film removes himself from his bitter parents, Julien in Custody is being tugged from both sides like a rag doll. Legrand and cinematographer Nathalie Durand’s camera stay close to Julien throughout the film, pushing him into uncomfortable situations. In the scenes where Julien is in a car with his father, the camera seems to be forcing Julien as close to the side door as possible, as if Antoine’s physicality and persona take up too much space in the vehicle for Julien to handle. 


As Custody reaches its climax, Legrand seamlessly blends raw social realism with suspense thriller. The final sequence is as tense as any genre film, but made all the more involving when the characters are this real and so personal to the audience by this point. As the final door closes and the film ends, we can breathe a sigh of relief as we hear our heart beat again, but are left with a lingering feeling that even though the door is closed on this story, there are many stories behind many doors still out there. 

[Sam Howlett is co-host of the Curzon Film Podcast]


Xavier Legrand's Custody plays on our screens from Friday 13 April.


Listen to the Custody episode of the Curzon Film Podcast, featuring our interview with Denis Ménochet. Discussing the film are Sam Howlett, Steven Ryder and Kambole Campbell.