In ‘Custody,’ a Father Terrorizes His Family

Lately, we’ve been hearing a lot about domestic horror, about movies that find monsters and demons at home, movies that reckon not so much with the banality of evil as with its awful familiarity.

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A.O. Scott
, New York Times

Lately, we’ve been hearing a lot about domestic horror, about movies that find monsters and demons at home, movies that reckon not so much with the banality of evil as with its awful familiarity.

“Custody,” the spare and unsparing debut feature by Xavier Legrand, is not, strictly speaking, a horror movie. There is nothing supernatural, nothing especially out of the ordinary, about the force that terrorizes Miriam Besson (Léa Drucker) and her children. It’s Miriam’s ex-husband, Antoine (Denis Ménochet), a man who wears his everydayness like a badge of righteousness. In his own mind, Antoine is a simple fellow with reasonable expectations, whose rage when they aren’t met is surely justified. To everyone else — Miriam, her parents, his children, the audience — he is a ticking bomb, a train hurtling down the track from battery to homicide.

Legrand is skilled in the techniques of dread and suspense, and without sensationalizing or cheapening the story, he gives this closely observed drama the tension and urgency of a thriller. Or, to put it another way, he uses thriller tactics — a ruthlessly objective camera, editing rhythms that ratchet up the anxiety of quiet moments, disciplined performances — in the service of documentary ends.

“Custody” begins with a scene that could be an excerpt from a Frederick Wiseman film (“Domestic Violence” most obviously). A magistrate and her assistant sit down with Miriam, Antoine and their lawyers. The mood is patient and deliberative. Everyone has a chance to speak, as the judge listens intently and asks skeptical questions. Emotion cedes the floor to reason.

Antoine, who is the only man in the room, wants to see his kids, or at least his son, Julien (Thomas Gioria). Neither Julien nor his sister, Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux), wants anything to do with him, but only Josephine is old enough for her wishes to be respected by the state. Julien, who is 11, is in effect sentenced in absentia to spend alternate weekends with his father, a person whose name he has whited out of his school forms and whom he refers to in depositions as “l’autre.” (The subtitles render it as “that man”; the literal meaning is “the other.”)

Antoine’s history of violence against his family — Miriam in particular — is alluded to in the hearing. (It is also the subject of Legrand’s powerful Oscar-nominated short, “Just Before Losing Everything,” which observes Miriam’s desperate flight from her abuser.) There is nothing ambiguous about the situation, but since Miriam never pressed charges and Antoine is an otherwise upstanding fellow, the state in its wisdom decides that compromise is the fairest way forward.

The consequences of this decision are horrifying, but hardly surprising. Legrand’s realism is more procedural than psychological. We don’t know a lot about Miriam, who used to work in a big-box retail store, or Antoine, who is in charge of fire safety at a hospital, beyond their day-to-day actions. Their marriage is far in the background, as is anything that might impair the precision of what amounts to a thorough and rigorous diagraming of the loci of abuse.

It is just possible to imagine that the burly, brooding Antoine was once a kind husband and an attentive father. But whatever tenderness might have been inside him was long ago swallowed up by possessiveness, self-pity and paranoia. The love he professes for his family expresses itself as a furious desire for control and a petulant sense of grievance when his will is thwarted. He manipulates Julien to get to Miriam, tormenting the boy with promises that turn into threats. With Miriam, Antoine can be coldly rational, weepy and needy, or quietly intimidating. When he is with her, the possibility of violence hovers in the air like an odorless, highly flammable gas.

Nobody knows what the explosion will look like, but Antoine is certain of one thing: It will not be his fault. The truest and worst thing about him is his ironclad sense of victimhood. When he hurts or terrifies Miriam, Julien or Joséphine (or when he erupts at his own father), it is because they made him do it. Their desire to be free of him is the greatest provocation of all, one that warrants a campaign of stalking, harassment and worse.

“Custody” never lifts its eyes beyond the particulars of this family, which becomes as vivid and real to us as our own neighbors and friends. But Legrand knows that no family is an island. The Bessons are citizens, students and workers, enmeshed in networks of solidarity that offer at least a partial, fragile promise of protection.

This film’s absolutely convincing depiction of intimate abuse is less a case study than a political theory. Antoine responds to a perceived loss of dominance with limitless resentment and a hypersensitivity to the slightest sign of disrespect or incivility. The objects of his wrath need to be nice to him, or else. He doesn’t only frighten Miriam, Julien and Joséphine. He forces them to live on his terms, in anticipation of his moods and whims and in fear of his inevitable disappointment or displeasure. You can call this toxic masculinity, pathological narcissism or the ugly face of patriarchy. You may also recognize it as a currently fashionable principle of governance.

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Not rated. In French, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.

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