Custody/ Jusqu'à la Garde is the debut full length feature by French director/ actor Xavier whose lauded short Just Before Losing Everything was Oscar nominated in 2013, signalling great promise as an upcoming director. With family drama Custody, which won Legrand Best Director for debut film at Venice Film Festival last year, he explores the emotional upheaval of acrimonious custody battles and patriarchal abuse.
Shot in real-time, Legrand shoots in an understated directorial style allowing for the acting and the all too tragically common narrative to shine through. He constructs his film around continuous emotional build-up by a string of events centred around young boy Julien Besson (Thomas Giora), his mother Miriam (Lea Ducker), his sister Josephine (Mathilde Auneveux) and their troubled relationship with husband/father Antoine (Denis Ménochet) who is seeking joint custody, despite the family's reluctance. Over the course of the film Antoine reveals himself to be an erratic, thuggish, bully with severe anger issues, which are being continually charged by the repeated rejection that is dished out at him and finally reaching to the point where he becomes physically violent and dangerous.
Custody is a psychologically intense and raw film with remarkable deliveries, culimnating in the prolonged, grippingly suspenseful final scenes of reckoning which prove incredibly harrowing, staying with you post watch. Legrand, builds the final moving crescendo masterfully; respecting the fragility and seriousness of the subject matter and at the same time inciting the viewer, conjuring up great emotion within them.
We had the chance to speak to Xavier a few weeks ago over the phone, to talk to us about his film.
Firstly, congratulations on the film. It’s beautiful, very emotive but also very intense I may add. What made you decide to make a film about domestic violence?
I started to write a theatre play and wanted to find a modern-day equivalent to a Greek tragedy. I quickly realised that most stories within tragedies talk about some horror in family life, some form of domestic violence.
So, family violence underpins a lot of Greek tragedies?
Yes! in Greek tragedies you have blood ties, people with the families trying to control each other. And because the blood connection means that if an individual does something, it’s the family honour that is affected. Individuals are subject to control by their blood ties.
We see Antoine as this brutish guy, who is incredibly vindictive. The rejection of the family towards him, seem to be the driving force to exert more control. Would you think that is an accurate assumption?
Well he is violent and but he is also in denial. He continues to act in the way of manipulating his family, exerting control. When he is rejected, instead of thinking about why he is rejected, he continues denying this violence, denying what his done. And is prepared to continue that denial to the point of murdering them. He is refusing to look at himself.
I read in an interview you attended support groups for violent men. What did you discover from being there?
Attending this group, allowed me to see the extent of which these men were completely in denial of their own violence. Also what was interesting to discover was that they were completely sold on to the patriarchal idea, that because they are the ‘men', its within their rights to behave like this and that their wives and family belong to them, they own them.
I would say it’s not about understanding these men. It’s about society taking a different approach to the whole issue. At the moment, we see campaigns about familial abuse, its mainly focused on telling women to leave their husbands, get out. The onus is on women to act. What actually should also be happening, is that campaigns should address the men themselves. ‘You’re violent, you’re the problem, you need treatment for it’. Like treating alcoholism. It’s about reframing the way of looking at the problem.
But then Antoine sees resistance from everyone around him; from his parents, his own family, from acquaintances. They aren’t responding positively to his behaviour. Wasn’t that a signifier that something is wrong with his behaviour?
Above all Antoine is a perverse narcissist. The way people like Antoine, get what they want is by asking for things that are entirely legitimate. He wants to be with his son; he wants to bring a present to his daughter at her birthday party. Nothing he says he wants to do is particularly terrible. However, those things are refused to him because he is dangerous, because he is violent. He sees himself as a victim and that enables him to attempt to get these things by control and exerting fear. That scene where he fights with his parents, the way he addresses his father, he won’t accept his own father’s interference in his role at being a father.
The film seems to be based on a continual emotional build-up which finds its release in the final scenes. What techniques do you use to accomplish this?
The way the script was constructed, mainly. We follow Antoine not from his point of view, but from the point of view of his victims. In the first instance we see him through the eyes of the judge, who Antoine manipulates to get joint custody. Then through the eyes of Julien who is forced by the court to spend time with him and then finally we see Antoine through the eyes of his wife. So, we are in a constant exposure with tension, through Antoine and his relationships.
The next thigs is to have events unfold in real time and to have silence and sounds from everyday life and not to have music. In that way, the viewer is completely involved in the reality of the scene and thus becomes a more intense observation.
You have been quoting Hitchcock in other interviews; specifically, the quote ‘there is no terror in the bang, only the anticipation of it’. I would totally apply this to Custody. You never see blatant violene even though you anticipte it and you know it happens. Was that intentional?
That is exactly it. The violence is imagined and perhaps in a way its more terrifying. We are exposed to violence all the time. So perhaps it’s refreshing not to show it?
What are you working on next for you?
I am going to carry on acting because that’s what I mainly do and of course I have plans for the next film.
Custody/ Jusqu'à la Garde is out now.
Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_.