“Joint custody blows.” That poignant declaration, made by one of the kiddos being fought over in Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale,” succinctly summarizes the entire custody-battle genre to which it belongs. Seven years after reaching its high-water mark with Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation,” that genre continues with Xavier LeGrand’s “Custody.” Less nuanced than some of its predecessors but far more stressful, it isn’t an easy watch — nor is it meant to be.
It’s also Legrand’s debut feature, arriving four years after his Oscar-nominated short “Just Before Losing Everything.” The first-timer won the Silver Lion for Best Director at last year’s Venice Film Festival, and his control over the material is on clear display throughout all 93 nail-biting minutes: “Custody” begins with an air of documentary reality before evolving into a thriller so claustrophobic its climax fits inside the bathroom of a modest apartment.
Regardless of who wins the war between mother and father in these films, the children almost always lose — casualties of a battle they didn’t start and never wanted any part in. (You don’t have to be a child of divorce to appreciate the difficulty of their position, but it helps.) That’s true of 11-year-old Julien (Thomas Gioria) and soon-to-be 18-year-old Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux), with one important difference: They’ve both chosen a side.
Legrand has, too, which would be to his film’s discredit if he were trying to make something more akin to “Kramer vs. Kramer.” Less a dissection of a failed marriage and more an observation of masculinity and its most toxic, “Custody” makes little secret of the fact that one half of this equation shoulders the lion’s share of blame.
It opens with a lengthy mediation in one of those cold, clinical rooms you hope never to find yourself in and introduces the two belligerents via their attorneys, who do most of the talking for their clients — mom Miriam (Léa Drucker) and dad Antoine (Denis Ménochet) don’t so much as look at one another. From the very first, Legrand makes it clear that there’s little to no chance of peaceful resolution. Drucker, a mainstay of French film, TV, and theater, is très bien as a woman who’s been battered but not broken.
Aside from that uncomfortable opening salvo, “Custody” doesn’t take place in the courtroom. When they aren’t arguing through their lawyers, the estranged couple communicate with the help of their traumatized son. A recorded statement in that opening scene makes it clear that Julien wants nothing to do with his father, whose vindictiveness at first seems a response to his family’s utter rejection of him — they huddle together and speak in hushed tones whenever he arrives to pick the boy up for the weekend. Quick to anger and wholly unpleasant to be around, he isn’t just losing his custody battle — he’s losing his fight against whatever demons have made him into the person he’s become.
Antoine greets the boy affectionately when he sees him, but there’s a quiet menace to the way he calls him “sweetie” and kisses him on the forehead: Things will only remain calm for as long as they’re on his terms. Should Julien lie about his mother’s whereabouts or fail to mask how little he wants to spend the next 48 hours in the company of his father, Antoine will explode — “La Gloire de mon père” this is not. Most of these moments feel earned, but Legrand occasionally lets the plot devolve into melodrama and histrionics in a way that undermines his film’s stronger elements.
There’s an urge, while watching these scenes, to reach through the screen and help Julien put on a good face and keep the monster at bay even as it becomes ever clearer that doing so will just make Antoine feel justified in his behavior. Eventually we want to do the same thing as Julien: run.
“Custody” is now playing in New York and opens in Los Angeles on July 13.