My heart practically stopped on several occasions while watching writer-director Xavier Legrand’s “Just Before Losing Everything,” which depicts, practically in real time, the white-knuckle moments in which an abused wife manages to pry herself away from a dangerous and controlling husband. That film is just half an hour long, but it earned Legrand (a former child actor who played an anti-Semitic French student in “Au revoir les enfants”) his first Oscar nomination — I say his first because we will be seeing much more of this filmmaker in the years to come.
Legrand’s feature debut, “Custody,” continues the story of Miriam (Léa Drucker) and Antoine (Denis Ménochet), though one needn’t have seen the short to be fully invested in what happens when Antoine, using the leverage of the legal system, uses a court-decided shared-custody arrangement to force his way back into his ex’s life — although the slow-burn suspense will take much longer to build if you haven’t previously witnessed what the man is capable of. A smart distributor (or else savvy art-house and cinematheque programmers) will find opportunities to pair the two, so that audiences might witness the full scope of the story — and of Legrand’s incredible promise as an emerging director.
That potential was recently spotlighted at the Venice film festival, where “Custody” won two significant prizes, best director and the “Lion of the Future” – Luigi De Laurentiis Award for best debut, both incredibly well-deserved honors for a film of modest scale with a significant message to impart — not that “Custody” could be mistaken for a traditional “message movie.” Rather, Legrand operates in the raw social realist tradition of such auteurs as Maurice Pialat and the Dardenne brothers, stripping away sentimentality in favor of direct, observational filmmaking.
It’s a much trickier technique to master than it looks, despite a lack of music or showy camera moves, and though the approach can sometimes feel unfiltered (that’s often the intent, anyway), it relies on meticulous scripting and rehearsal in order to appear so spontaneous — which speaks to the talent of his entire cast, but especially that of newcomer Thomas Gioria, who plays 12-year-old Julien, the couple’s traumatized blond son, whom Antoine cruelly manipulates in an attempt to restore his marriage.
Legrand is still finding his own style, and may be a bit too enamored of a certain icy, arm’s-length aesthetic, currently in vogue on the European art-cinema circuit (rewarded by selection in prestigious film festivals, such as Venice and Cannes, and subsequently adopted by directors hoping to be screened at such events themselves). Precious few filmmakers can pull off this clinically disinterested approach to their own characters, and it proves frustrating in “Custody’s” opening scene, as Legrand seems almost painfully disconnected from Miriam and Antoine as the couple attend a mediation session with a family law judge, accompanied by their lawyers.
But there is a point to this froideur, as it forces us into the same position of the presiding judge (Saadia Bentaïeb): She doesn’t know the truth about their history, but must decide whether to believe Miriam’s claims of domestic abuse, or to give Antoine the benefit of the doubt — and by extension, shared custody. In this setting, as is frequently the case in the real world, the man asserts his privilege, and Miriam falls silent, trusting the system to protect her. It doesn’t. The judge grants Antoine weekend visitation of Julien. (His older sister Joséphine, played by Mathilde Auneveux, is nearly 18 and relieved of the indignity — though Legrand uses this character to reveal insights into how children of abusive households often seek independence by rushing into unhealthy relationships of their own.)
That chilly distance between the filmmaker and his subject thaws as the film progresses, unfolding like a slow-motion thriller, albeit one entirely devoid of the musical spikes and shock tactics genre movies use to indicate that danger is brewing. But the suspense builds all the same, reaching a nearly unbearable crescendo in the climactic scene, when we find ourselves wondering whether emergency services (the French equivalent of 911) can possibly arrive in time to avert a full-scale tragedy.
Trusting our intelligence, Legrand seeds subtle clues that allow intuitive audiences to put together Antoine’s potential for combustible, truly terrifying violence. For example, when Antoine comes to collect Julien for the first time, he does so at his maternal grandparents’ home, but Miriam isn’t there. In time, we come to understand that, following the dramatic escape of “Just Before Losing Everything,” she’s doing everything she can to hide where she now lives from Antoine. And yet, using his influence as a father — and a willingness to harm his own son — Antoine can still find her.
Like so many abusive partners, Antoine has an impressive capacity for charm as well, which makes Ménochet an excellent choice to portray him. He appears genuinely penitent about his past mistakes, and of course, there once was love between him and Drucker’s character — which he shrewdly manipulates to get what he wants, playing on this weakness in attempt to repair a relationship he refuses to acknowledge as permanently broken. Because of these lingering emotions, we can’t trust Miriam to identify what’s best, and yet, Legrand provides all the warnings we need in the way other characters (Julien, Joséphine, Miraim’s sister, Antoine’s presence) respond to the escalating situation. That’s the power of subtext, but he also plays on instinct, trusting us to intuit what words cannot say about the age-old problem.
If “Just Before Losing Everything” ended with the deep sigh of relief that Miriam had finally broken free of his control, “Custody” (not so much a sequel as a continuation) raises the very real issue that abuses women in our society cannot simply run away from the problem. The solution is far more complex — which might explain why, for more than a decade, Hollywood movies featuring characters like Antoine’s ended with the abuser decapitated, impaled or gruesomely murdered, because only then is the victim truly safe. Reality, it seems, can be far scarier, and Legrand’s achievement — his integrity, one might say — is that he’s managed to cut to the marrow of the situation while remaining keenly sensitive to how such things play out in the real world.