A French actor-turned-director, Xavier Legrand scored a home-run with his first short film, “Just Before Losing Everything,” earning an Academy Award nomination and a Cesar Award, France’s equivalent of the Oscars, in 2014.
Legrand’s long-gestated directorial debut, “Custody,” which expands on the plot and characters of his critically acclaimed short, is world-premiering in competition at the Venice Film Festival on Friday before playing at Toronto in the competitive Platform section. “Custody” follows a boy named Julien (Thomas Gioria) who is forced by a court ruling to split his time between his mother ( Léa Drucker) and estranged father (Denis Ménochet), whom he regards as a violent monster, amid his parents’ bitter divorce. Held hostage to the escalating conflict between his parents, Julien is pushed to the edge to prevent the worst from happening.
Legrand spoke to Variety about his wish to make a film that stands out from custody-battle movies by weaving together family drama and suspense thriller elements, as well as telling the story from different points of view while remaining as truthful as possible in his depiction of domestic violence. The film has already been pre-sold by Celluloid Dreams to several territories. It will be distributed in France by Haut et Court.
Here is a sneak peek of the official trailer:
What is the genesis of “Custody” and why were you interested in dealing with the topic of domestic violence?
It all started with my short, “Just Before Losing Everything.” The issue of domestic violence interested me particularly; it’s a challenging subject because it can easily be treated as an ordinary human-interest story and it’s not always easy for people to relate to characters. So I took it from a different angle: I focused on the action and the mounting fear and distilled the suspense throughout the film.
What’s interesting in “Custody” is that the audience is placed at the center of the intrigue, discovering who the father really is scene by scene.
Yes, that’s how domestic violence works. It takes place behind closed doors; no one sees it. Oftentimes, the victims end up in court asking for custody, but they have little or no proof of the abuse. I spent a great deal of time with a family-affairs judge, and I attended several conciliation hearings.
There have been many movies about custody battles, including “Kramer vs. Kramer.” Did any of them inspire you?
Of course I’ve watched “Kramer vs. Kramer,” but “Custody” is very different. The focus here is on a woman’s separation from a violent spouse and how the child becomes hostage of the conflict. There are few films from the ’90s that deal with the issue of domestic violence, notably “Sleeping with the Enemy” or even “What’s Love Got to Do With It” about Tina Turner’s tumultuous relationship with Ike Turner. And in terms of mise en scene, I’ve always admired Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Haneke, Claude Chabrol, to name a few.
How did you work on the mise-en-scene to give “Custody” a cinematic edge?
Firstly, I used multiple perspectives. We are following Antoine [the father] through the eyes of three different characters: the judge, his son and ex wife. Then I used a few scenes that had a similar setup twice through the film to give audiences an uncanny sense of deja-vu and familiarity. I also shot the pivotal apartment scenes in a studio because I had a precise idea of the decor and I wanted every detail to be as real as possible. I also didn’t want a soundtrack and used noises of everyday life which I amplified at certain times to produce a surreal effect.
How did the Oscar nomination for your short film “Just Before Losing Everything” help you gain confidence as a director?
It was a wonderful experience, being in Los Angeles to promote the film, talk to journalists and walk the red carpet. And as an emerging director, if gave me a lot of credibility and helped me attract great partners and finance the film. But at the same time, I felt a great deal of pressure to deliver with my first feature film, which is why it took me a while to finish the script. I wanted it to be perfect! I also benefited from my own work as a stage actor; it made the collaboration with actors on “Custody” very smooth.