“I consider a scene to be a small story in itself. Each scene must construct the organic narrative of the greater story told.” Writer-director Xavier Legrand
Only hardcore Academy Awards enthusiasts will remember French writer-director Xavier Legrand’s Oscar-nominated 2013 live-action short, Just Before Losing Everything. A superior standout of that year’s crop of short film nominees (which nonetheless lost the award to the sentimental Danish film, Helium), Legrand’s tightly wound tale followed a young woman as she tried to escape a doomed fate and save herself and her young children from her severely abusive husband. In 29 breathtaking minutes, Legrand followed her protagonist Miriam’s (Léa Druckner) frantic footsteps through stressful long takes and unfolded her anxiety in mostly real time. Now, Legrand is back with his flawless feature debut Custody, which expands upon Miriam’s survival story (by picking it up a few years after the events depicted in the panic-inducing short) and morphs into a meticulously premeditated nightmare in its final act. Both Druckner and Denis Ménochet (playing the abusive spouse Antoine) return as cast members, enabling everyone who has seen the short to slip back into Miriam’s angst straightaway.
But what about all those who haven’t seen Just Before Losing Everything? Legrand has certainly considered the two distinct paths different audiences would take while walking into Custody; the winner of ‘Best Director’ and ‘Best Debut Film’ awards at the 2017 Venice Film Festival. He opens the film with an extended, intimate courtroom scene in which Miriam and Antoine are being questioned by a judge alongside their respective attorneys. In this Asghar Farhadi-esque scene of truth-seeking inside a custody battle, you either are aware of Antoine’s true colors based on your knowledge of the couple’s past or (if you are new to the material), you are trying to figure out who the lying party is. “From the beginning, I knew there would be a sequel to Just Before Losing Everything since I wanted to build a trilogy of three short films,” Legrand tells me in a recent email exchange. “It was during the editing of the first episode that I decided to make a feature film to tell the rest of the story. I designed the film with knowledge of the facts. Those who haven’t seen the short film find themselves in doubt—they, therefore, are watching a suspense film. Those who have seen the short film beforehand witness a more terrifying situation—they observe how this man manages to manipulate everyone. Thus, they are witnessing a horror film from the beginning.”
He is right in likening Custody to a horror film, as its finale—in which Antoine pursues his terrified family—would certainly not be out of place in The Shining. But Legrand takes his time to get there, building every minor or major event patiently, letting the audience settle into each one of his extended scenes (that feel like short films themselves) with a sense of closely controlled discomfort. After the courtroom scene, we slowly get to know the troubles of the young son, Julien (Thomas Gioria)—an apprehensive kid caught between his protective, understandably fearful mother and ill-tempered father—and his older sister, Joséphine (Mathilde Auveneux)—who is now of legal age to disregard her dangerous father completely and has life plans of her own. With the discipline of a taut thriller, Legrand weaves together a brutally restrained suspense that feels pregnant with an impending volcanic eruption. As Antoine’s sinister manipulation and toxic masculinity turns everyone around him into a desperate hostage, Legrand’s tale of domestic violence grows in its scope and crosses paths with the #TimesUp movement socially and politically.
“The [writing process] consists of disclosing the information one by one while leaving room for the ambiguity of humanity,” explains Legrand, when asked about his approach to creating and maintaining a consistent undercurrent of tension. “I avoid labeling a good and a bad character too quickly. Sound [design] is also [an element that] allows the spectator to plunge into the atmosphere of the scenes—the choice to use sounds, as I did in the film, existed from the beginning of the writing process. Having some of the scenes happen in real time leaves room for silence, and keeps the spectator always guessing what will happen. The secret is to make the spectator think and work, to have [them] stretch towards the screen.” Aided by his stellar ensemble cast and his cinematographer Nathalie Durand’s unforgiving camera that insists on blurring the lines between fiction and reality (yes, minute by minute, inch by inch, Custody feels relentlessly real), Legrand achieves exactly that. The audience members have little choice but to navigate their way through the residue of an entitled male’s terrorizing actions.
But much of Custody’s indisputable authenticity is also thanks to Legrand’s meticulous research on the topic of domestic violence. As part of his writing process, he read various reports, testimonies; sociological and psychological studies, and watched fiction and documentary films. He also met female victims of domestic violence and attended groups of violent men. Through following a psychologist specialized in the subject, he accompanied a family judge during conciliation hearings for several days, interviewed police officers and even spent a few nights at the Emergency Police Information and Command Centre (the French equivalent of 911 in the US.) “I met women who escaped death when I was [doing research],” Legrand recalls. “Their testimony was very valuable to me. And I continue to meet these women; at the end of [a] screening of the film, it is not [uncommon] for a woman to come and talk to me and tell me that she has experienced the same situation.” On that note, Legrand doesn’t shy away from voicing his critical view of his own country’s justice system. “French justice is not protective enough and we have proof,” he indicates. “A woman is murdered by her spouse or ex-spouse every three days in France. 123 women were killed in 2016, and 35 children were also killed in a context of domestic violence. These statistics are not diminishing.”