A few months ago, I received an email from Alberto Barbera, artistic director of the Venice Film Festival, asking (to my considerable surprise) if I’d be interested in being a member of the ‘Opera Prima’ jury for the upcoming 74th edition of the event. Needless to say, I replied that I’d be more than delighted to participate, and a couple of weeks ago I arrived in Venice to take my place on the jury alongside its president, French director Benoît Jacquot, and three other members: Hong Kong producer Albert Lee, Italian actress Greta Scarano, and Greek director Yorgos Zois. We had a great time together, and I very much enjoyed the illuminating discussions we had concerning the 16 first features we had to watch before deciding on the Lion of the Future (which includes a substantial cash award to both the director and the producer of the winning film). All of the films were in some way interesting, many had moments of impressive invention and intelligence, and some were very good; among my own personal favourites were Temporada de Caza (Hunting Season) by Natalia Garagiola, and Les Bienheureux (The Blessed) by Sofia Djama. But for me, at least, there was never any doubt that the finest of the films we saw was Xavier Legrand’s Jusqu’à la garde (the English title is Custody), to which we ended up giving the prize. Nor were we alone in appreciating and rewarding Legrand’s achievement: the main jury, presided over by Annette Bening, awarded him the Silver Lion for Best Director.
In truth, it’s perhaps a little unfair to single out the direction, since both Legrand’s screenplay and the film’s three central performances are so strong as to deserve awards in their own right. It’s that sort of movie; it sets out to do something, and the execution is so meticulous in every respect that the end result feels pretty much flawless. But then that, I suppose, is the mark of a good director – pulling everything together to create a coherent whole – so Bening and her team made a wise choice. Certainly, Custody is such a bold, subtle, beautifully wrought work that you could never tell, without having been informed previously, that it is a first feature. Before this debut, Legrand worked as an actor in theatre and film – he appeared as a boy in Malle’s Au revoir les enfants – and in 2014 he made a short, Avant que de tout perdre (Just Before Losing Everything), which reaped a number of French awards and an Oscar nomination. Not that we jurors bore any of that in mind when deliberating; all that mattered was the film we had seen, and that spoke up quite well enough for itself.
That said, I’d be very interested to see the short, as apparently it shares two of its actors – Denis Ménochet and Léa Drucker – and its overall subject matter – the aftermath of a marriage that has turned bad – with the later film. In terms of plot, Custody is simple and straightforward: Myriam (Drucker) and Antoine (Ménochet) are separated, and she would like sole custody of her youngest child Julien (Thomas Gioria) to protect him from what she has told a judge is his father’s violent temper; she is less bothered about their daughter Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux), since she’s about to turn 18. But the judge grants joint custody, whereby Antoine can see his daughter any time and his son at weekends. But Julien doesn’t want to see his dad, which makes Antoine suspect his wife has turned the boy against him…
To reveal more of the plot would diminish your enjoyment of a film that at times becomes almost unbearably tense – though it really isn’t a ‘thriller’ as such, merely a very astute study of a family on the rocks which has the same sort of suspense you find, say, in the best films of the Dardenne brothers. Not that Legrand’s film is in any way stylistically similar to those of the Belgian duo; though it might possibly be described as naturalistic social realism, or some such, his very precise framing and frequent use of a fixed camera, his subtly expressionist use of sound, and his very distinctive pacing and occasional deployment of narrative ellipses mark him out as a singular talent to watch. That much is clear in the very first scene, where a judge listens to the lawyers representing the different parties in the custody hearing; only after we have heard (reliable or otherwise) descriptions of Antoine and Myriam and their actions do we actually get to see their faces. Though Custody is notable for its eloquence and clarity, Legrand makes terrific use of areas of ambiguity; he doesn’t present things in terms of black and white but, true to the famous Renoir motto, allows that we all ‘have our reasons’. At one moment you might be forgiven for thinking one of the characters monstrous; yet that person, wrongly or rightly, means well and may even be acting out of love. What does become all too clear, however, is that it is Julien who is the most vulnerable; as his parents focus their energies on fighting one another, the boy becomes something of a pawn in their battle, his own happiness and wellbeing almost a matter of secondary concern.
Keen to praise Legrand’s achievements as writer-director, I have perhaps omitted to pay sufficient attention to the performances in a film that is notable for its fine acting by everyone involved. Even if Auneveux has a little less to do than Ménochet, Drucker and Gloria, she too is superb at several key moments. As for that memorably wonderful trio, you may know Ménochet (who here suggests a burlier Robert Mitchum, with all that that entails) from Inglourious Basterds, Grand Central, Norfolk, The Program or elsewhere, while Drucker’s face will perhaps be familiar to fans of French cinema, but young Gioria, in his first screen role, is extraordinary. I hope you’ll be able to catch up with this movie in the not too distant future; here below is just a short clip to give you some idea of its honesty and its terrific acting. For me, Custody is quite simply one of the most impressive first features of recent years.
Just to add: Custody went down extremely well in Toronto, too. Indeed, it ended up being listed as one of Screen Daily‘s top ten films of Venice and Toronto, and has been added to the BFI London Film Festival programme.