Custody (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

It is most appropriate that the final image of the picture is seen through the eyes of a neighbor. After all, the material tasks the viewer to watch closely and intensely as gradations of violence are shown on screen—most of them quiet but heavy and unrelenting. Tension can be broken with a dull knife. We are helpless, we want to scream, we wish to call for help. It becomes increasingly apparent—alarmingly apparent—that something is terribly wrong. Writer-director Xavier Legrand takes a look at a family and crisis and shoves us into a headspace of a victim, particularly that of a minor (Thomas Gioria) who must spend every other weekend with his father (Denis Ménochet).

An artillery of words is just as loud as silence that sits like a heavy fog. Observe the opening sequence involving the warring spouses, the lawyers that represent them, and the judge who must make a decision by the end of the week. We are presented with facts, opinions, recollections, and letters of recommendation within a span of fifteen minutes. There is a lot to digest. Words are rich in implications. Questions pummel the mind. It makes it all the more difficult to believe one side over another since there are numerous conflicting elements in each party’s testimony. Are we meant to be impartial? The script allows us freedom.

It is established that Miriam (Léa Drucker) and Antoine’s (Besson) marriage is beyond repair. But they have children. No matter what the judge decides, we get the feeling that neither side would be completely happy. Because happiness is freedom. Due to the former couple having children, they can never really be free of one another. This is not the kind of drama where spouses end up finding that spark again only by spending more time together, perhaps even forgiving each other’s grave mistakes. There is no forgiveness nor is there a need for it. I admired that the sharp and efficient writing is not interested in such a thing. Walking down that avenue would have been the easier route to provide the audience warm feelings. No, its laser-like focus is more interested in what must happen to this family and why it is worth following them for the time being.

Silence is violent because we anticipate it must be broken eventually. Still, the film offers rich details when it appears nothing is happening or being expressed. When there is a pause in the dialogue, we wonder what the characters are thinking. Note the awkward interactions between the father and his son while sitting in a van. When there is silence, read the body language. Particularly uncomfortable is watching the boy’s tension-filled comportment: his torso is almost always angled slightly away from the figure he fears, eye contact is kept at a minimum, and there is no excitement in his voice. When the boy does react—anger, frustration, helplessness—a shade of sadness hovers over him. Gioria does an excellent job in making these small but critical choices. He makes it look like the role is not just for any young performer. At one point, I was so convinced by his portrayal that I wondered if he knew how it was like to get caught up in a toxic parental separation.

“Jusqu’à la garde” is an impressive debut feature. It is told without impactful subplots or supporting characters that function as decorations. It attempts to lock the viewers into a heavy mood by ensuring that just about every element is realistic. Because of this, we get the feeling that anything can happen—even unhappy endings. Here is a film that does not care if the viewer feels good so long as the viewer remains interested every step of the way.

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