There’s a moment, early in the tense French divorce drama “Custody,” when you feel sorry for Antoine, the husband.
He’s sitting in mediation, a lawyer at his side, making his case, a judge hearing it, and his ex-wife and her attorney arguing against joint custody.
Everybody but Antoine is a woman. Is the deck stacked against this bearish father of two? Simple casting (the burly Denis Ménocet plays him) underscores our expectations. We hear a statement from his 11 year-old son. Julien has his mother, his older sister, his grandparents and “lots of friends” where he’s moved.
He doesn’t want to see “that man,” uses words like “harass,” when he talks about how Antoine treats the wife he’s separated from, and finishes with “He wants to hurt her.”
It sounds coached, and the judge says so. Perhaps that guides her hand as she makes a simple ruling ensuring the father’s rights. Perhaps she should have known better.
Perhaps the French should learn that well-worn American phrase, “restraining order.”
“Custody” is a thriller built upon on-the-nose casting. There is little in Antoine that suggests how shocked and enraged his lawyer seems over “the violent, threatening boor portrayed here (in French, with English subtitles).” We believe it. And not just because of his appearance.
We can see it in wife Miriam’s eyes, with actress Léa Drucker conveying, at every turn, the mortal fear of saying or doing something to set him. We see it in son Julien (Thomas Gloria), his eyes-averting terror and resignation getting in the car with Antoine after the joint custody begins.
We sense it even in the older daughter (Mathilde Auneveux), an eighteen year old music student who desperately craves and devours her boyfriend, anything with the promise of an escape from this hell. The fact that her father disapproves and has threatened them adds mortal danger to their affair. The passion may be there, but Antoine has destroyed the joy in their first love and left one and all broken, quivering in fear at his manipulations, stalking and bullying.
His own parents seem to value the grandchildren more than him and have no hope of correcting the volcanic temper we’ve seen flashes of from them.
Writer-director Xavier Legrand expands on is Oscar-nominated short “Just Before Losing Everything” (“Avant que de tout perdre”) for a quiet, grimly realistic thriller that begins with a lot of talk and civilized debate and descends into living with fear pointing to a moment when everybody’s nightmare comes true.
Ménochet manages the script’s odd passive aggressive moment chillingly. But he was cast for brute menace, and he conveys that in every scene. We fear for Miriam and especially Julien, who might just be any kid trapped in the middle of his parents’ divorce, save for Antoine’s blunt threats.
She’s secretly found a new apartment? She might be seeing somebody else? She’s letting their daughter continue to see her boyfriend? She won’t let him have her phone number? She lies every time he calls, about Julien’s “stomach ache” — any excuse the two of them can think up.
“She’ll pay for that, big time.”
Ménochet’s interrogations of his son don’t go as far as water-boarding, but they are torture to sit through. His silent brooding, driving and badgering the kid for an address, a phone number, build the movie’s menace, weekend by weekend.
If there’s an overbearing flaw to “Custody,” it is its lack of surprises. We sense what this guy is capable of. We’ve heard it described. The only question is when and where.
To Legrand’s credit, he conjures suspense out of the horrific reality of it all. Even if we think we’ve gotten ahead of this tale, muttering “foreshadowing” or “here it is” at every possible point our fears could be realized, Legrand teases and taunts us, right down to the ironic choice of song daughter Josephine sings at her birthday party.
We remember Tina Turner’s personal history. Does Josephine?
(See the trailer for the short film “Avant que de tout perdre” here)
MPAA Rating: unrated, adult themes
Cast: Léa Drucker, Denis Ménochet, Thomas Gloria
Credits: Written and directed by Xavier Legrand. A Kino Lorber release.
Running time: 1:33