As its title indicates, Custody is concerned more with processes as organizational entities than with the people who abide by them, suggesting that bureaucratic procedures have lives of their own. Writer-director Xavier Legrand follows a nasty custody dispute between a divorcing husband and wife, Antoine and Miriam Besson (Denis Ménochet and Léa Drucker), over their son, Julien (Thomas Gioria). Anyone who’s lived through a divorce will recognize the details that Legrand shrewdly emphasizes: the petty evasions, the lies, and particularly the way that Julien is batted around as a status marker. Yet all of Legrand’s characters are markers themselves—pawns in a schematic that’s alternately reductive, poignant, and terrifying.
Throughout Custody, one is manifestly aware of Legrand’s ellipses. When Antoine picks Julien up for a weekend visitation for which he fought hard in court, over both Miriam and Julien’s objections, we don’t see the long ride between estranged father and son as they travel to Antoine’s parents’ house. We don’t even see much of the weekend that follows, or of the weekend that follows that, as each visitation period is reduced to a few succinct sketches—an awkward embrace, a catastrophic dinner—that reveal this relationship to be defined by its endless and unrelieved sense of transit. Antoine is so busy trying to have his child that he doesn’t bother to experience his child, and this is a painful and quite truthful element of custody negotiation.
Even more significantly, we never see Antoine and Miriam break up. The couple is already in the process of divorcing at the start of the film, which opens with a 15-minute hearing between Miriam, Antoine, their attorneys, and their case’s judge. This sequence is so long and pointedly expository that it places us viscerally in the protagonists’ shoes—and like Miriam and Antoine, we want out of this room so that we may be allowed to see and discern facts for ourselves, rather than be spoon-fed information that cancels itself out.
Since we haven’t seen Antoine and Miriam together for ourselves, we have no idea whom to “trust,” though our sympathies are directed toward Antoine. It seems that Miriam has turned Julien and their other, nearly adult child, Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux), against Antoine out of spitefulness and paranoia. Antoine might have hit Joséphine, but it’s not substantiated, and the judge—a woman, like everyone in the court’s chambers save for Antoine—seems to distrust the vagueness of Miriam’s assertions. And we do too, because so much of Custody is devoted to showing how Antoine is mercilessly rejected by a family for maddeningly abstract reasons.
Custody might stir up submerged resentments between the genders, dividing audiences’ sympathies in tandem with their individual experiences with such sensitive and volatile situations. For a while, Antoine is the classic suffering male, while Miriam is an “other” who commits acts that are seemingly random and unreasonable—a sense of gendered emphasis that recalls the desperate sympathies accorded to the dueling protagonists of Robert Benton’s Kramer vs. Kramer. This imbalance initially scans as a failure of empathy on Legrand’s part, though the filmmaker is committing a narrative sleight of hand, setting his audience up for a disturbing and resonant punchline: Antoine really is unhinged, a burly man with a great capacity for violence. By the end of the film, he’s storming Miriam’s apartment and blasting the front door off its hinges with a shotgun, nearly killing Julien in the process.
Suddenly morphing from a relationship drama and legal procedural into a horror film, Custody captures the innate perversion of violence, dramatizing an annihilation of social stability. But the film is also a stunt. Each scene is brisk, purposefully demoralizing, and structured with precise points of view—all so that the climatic home invasion resounds with maximum surprise and impact. Legrand has orchestrated an impressive behavioral math equation, but one wishes for the occasional spontaneous touch—for a splash of beauty or humor that might allow the actors to expand their vivid but narrow characterizations. Custody is concerned with the failure of process to discern human need and perversion, and Legrand rather ironically follows in the footsteps of bureaucracy by reducing people to statistics.