Silence is having a moment. The past week has seen the arrival of Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck and John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place, films that place huge emphasis on the absence of sound for different reasons and with varying degrees of success. Xavier Legrand’s Custody, out this week, isn’t about silence as such but it plays a crucial role in this nerve prickling domestic drama.
Nobody knows what goes on behind closed doors. Which makes it almost impossible for the judge in the film’s opening sequence to come to a conclusion. It’s an arbitration meeting, all part of a couple getting a divorce and deciding the custody arrangements for their children. All very matter of fact on the surface, with one of the lawyers observing that “nothing here is black and white.” But husband, Antoine (the omni-present Denis Menochet, currently in Mary Magdalene, as well as Entebbe next month) keeps talking to his lawyer and needs to be told repeatedly to be quiet. The statement to the court from son Julien (Thomas Gioria) refers to his father as “that man”. There are two versions of the same story, so who should we – and the judge – believe?
Because older daughter Josephine (Mathilde Auneveux) is 18, it’s decided that only Julien needs to divide his time between his parents: alternate weekends with Antoine and the rest with mother, Miriam (Lea Drucker). It’s not long before the boy finds himself stuck in a war zone, with his parents continuing to fight over him. He tries to duck out of his weekends with dad, but to no avail, so their relationship becomes increasingly fractured and fraught. The breaking point comes over dinner at his grandparents: Antoine has a temper and it’s clear where he gets it from, because he and his own father are uncomfortably alike.
It’s perfectly reasonable and rational that Antoine should want to spend time with his son, but he is anything but. He alienates everybody around him and there’s no doubt that his behaviour will have a lasting and disturbing effect on Julien. And, while the film is presented in a docu-drama style, what’s really impressive is the way Legrand uses silence to make the growing tension almost unbearable. Towards the end of the film, mother and son are alone in the flat, with an intruder trying to get in. When it sounds like they’ve gone away, your ears stand on end, listening for the slightest sound to indicate what’s happening on the other side of the door. Eventually, they come. They’re deafening. And terrifying.
We don’t see the reason why Antoine and Miriam split up, just the result. And, while this is an unpredictable family drama, it also plays out like a thriller, bolstered by terrific, utterly believable performances from the major players. The hulking father, who tries to convince his former wife that he’s changed, tries to be a loving father to his son – and fails at every turn. The wife whose seemingly fragile exterior conceals nerves of steel. The boy who curls into a terrified ball in the face of his father’s temper and the daughter who tries to distant herself from her family’s self-destruction but can’t.
As a portrait of modern marriage, it’s depressing, but it’s also brilliantly realised, unflinching, intense and, at times, genuinely frightening. For anybody who’s been part of a shattered marriage, or watched one disintegrate, it may prove just too close to the bone. Yes, it’s that good.
Freda Cooper |[rating=4]
Drama, Thriller | 15 | UK, 13 April (2018) | Picturehouse Entertainment | Dir. Xavier Legrand| Denis Menochet, Lea Drucker, Thomas Gioria and Mathilde Auneveux.