Custody. 2018. Directed & Written by Xavier Legrand.
Starring Léa Drucker, Denis Ménochet, Thomas Gioria, Mathilde Auneveux, Mathieu Saikaly, Florence Janas, Saadia Bentaïeb, & Coralie Russier.
K.G. Productions/France 3 Cinéma/Centre National de la Cinématographie
Not Rated. 93 minutes.
Film is a great medium for entertainment. It’s equally as perfect as a vehicle to explore important social issues. Drama – no matter what other genre it encompasses – can confront our real lives outside the camera’s lens with an intensity to match real life while simultaneously providing the audience a safe place from which to experience a story’s events. This fictional distance doesn’t always make things easier to digest. A film can be just as harrowing as real life, sometimes it even needs to be to get its point across.
Custody is easily one of 2018’s most important films. The story involves a married couple – Miriam (Léa Drucker) and Antoine (Denis Ménochet) – going through a bitter divorce and custody battle. Their boy Julien (Thomas Gioria) and their older daughter Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux) are caught between their parents, each terrified of dad. This is an age old tale of fear, about women caught between a rock and a hard place: between an abusive husband and the safety of her child, as well as a system of safety nets seemingly determined to fail her rather than help.
This is a film that’ll make you angry. More than most horror movies, this will make you want to scream at the screen out of sheer injustice. And it should produce those reactions, at least for those with a beating heart in their chest. Xavier Legrand’s debut is a disturbingly powerful look at how women’s lives are vastly different from those of men. A man may lose his children in a divorce. He doesn’t run the risk of being beaten and murdered by his former spouse, then being let down by the police and the justice system. Neither does he face living in a constant state of fear wondering if the day’s come when the tiniest thing will send his ex into a potentially fatal tailspin.
Part of the story’s weight comes from how it shows the effects of a rough divorce and domestic violence on the children in a family. Although the young boy, Julien, is in more apparent corporeal danger than his older sister Joséphine, who doesn’t have as much contact with their father, she remains significantly affected. One scene features the big milestone of her 18th birthday. The entire time, including when she takes the stage to sing with her band, she can’t enjoy the celebration for fear of what her father may do and what could happen to her mother. Julien’s in the direct line of fear, bearing the brunt of dad’s frustration on a weekly basis, and in the end he’s with his mother when the inevitable male violence erupts in Antoine. The kids exist in a constant state of paranoid stress like their mom does, as if they’re at war and unable to relax for a second because of what might occur if they let their guard down a moment.
Because Julien’s under the age of 18, he’s subject to his dad’s constant anger and violent whims. He must navigate life trying to protect his own mother, from lying to his father to keeping his phone free of mom’s phone number in case dad goes prying into his things, and more. He’s at risk by simply being around his father, which the court conveniently doesn’t take into account. To the legal system, nothing about Miriam and Antoine’s situation is cut and dry. They’re insistent on being fair, in spite of the fact Antoine is clearly abusive. Due to the volatile relationship between parents, their children suffer. The danger Miriam and her children find themselves in is undeniably terrifying.
“Nothing here is black and white”
Of course the majority of the story lies in the relationship between Miriam and Antoine as parents. The biggest takeaway from Custody is how Legrand illustrates the disparate perspectives of men and women in custody situations involving domestic violence. Legrand juxtaposes the wounded male ego of an abuser such as Antoine with the terror of a woman like Miriam whose safety has been all but obliterated. In one scene, Antoine says he doesn’t “want trouble every weekend” when he feels Julien has made things slightly inconvenient. This statement sits in stark opposition to the boy’s concerns when he plainly states to his father: “I don‘t want you to hit mom.” Not exactly a comparison when dad’s only worried how custody infringes on the rest of his life.
Meanwhile, Miriam is the one who’s got to physically endure violence. These are examples of the relative nature of domestic abuse’s far reaching effects. A man can lose custody of his kids, and maybe the kids will come to resent him, but he’ll never fear for his life or have to rearrange it, constantly change phone numbers and conceal his new home addresses, or alter his lifestyle/routines, and the tragic list goes on! What’s perceived as inconvenience for a man means possible violence for a woman.
The entirety of the finale is chilling. One image is a quiet standout. While Miriam tries to hide from Antoine downstairs, she hangs up her phone in a delicate way so as to not make any noise. It’s almost a throwaway moment. However, this is behaviour endemic to women who’ve been forced to train themselves to live while suffering in fear of a violent man, to an unconscious level. Antoine is downstairs, yet his presence is constant in Miriam’s life, so she’s ingrained this tiptoe-style of living into everyday existence.
Like too many domestic violence cases in real life, this fictional one escalates to a close to deadly level when the husband shows up with a rifle— darkly ironic, given people from his hunting club originally vouched for him via affidavits in court. These are the lengths to which the situation had to escalate for the legal system to finally/fully help Miriam. A harrowing near death encounter must occur for women to be taken seriously about their very (corpo)real fears. What happens behind closed doors shouldn’t always remain that way. This sentiment’s epitomised in the final scene where a neighbour sees Miriam’s busted door and the aftermath of what could’ve been murder. The image of the door with its bullet holes stands as a grave warning sign to a society unable to appropriately protect women and their children from violent men.
Custody will no doubt be difficult to watch for women who’ve experienced abuse. For everyone else, it’s a film begging society to pay attention, to listen to women when they share those experiences. Husbands expect a wife to act a certain way. The courts expect a woman to act a certain way. The police and courts expect a woman to have a perfect personal history when attempting to get away from an abusive home life. All these expectations from others, the ones who aren’t being beaten, degraded, perhaps raped, too— but what exactly is a woman to expect?