At the beginning of Xavier Legrand’s tense, taut, and predictable “Custody,” Antoine (Denis Ménochet) and Miriam (Léa Drucker), an estranged husband and wife, sit before a magistrate as their lawyers plead their cases. He wants the right to weekend visitations with his 11-year-old son, Julien (Thomas Gioria). She wants Antoine to steer clear of the family altogether. He is beefy, bearded, and bullying. She looks drawn, numb, and defeated. Despite a statement from the son saying that he despises and fears his father and evidence that the father once physically assaulted his 17-year-old daughter, Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux), because she had a boyfriend, the judge inexplicably finds for Antoine.
The film’s inexorable narrative, claustrophobic mood, and inert character development are set in motion with this opening confrontation. Julien serves as a pawn in an unequal contest. Arriving and tooting the horn of his irritating little white van, Antoine drags off his son and sets to work pumping him for information, defaming his mother, demanding affection, and gaslighting him. Julien sits in silence, his face frozen in rage and terror. Though his part is thinly conceived, Gioria puts in a haunting performance. His rare moments of joy, such as when he curls up grinning in the corner of his bedroom in a new apartment, contrast poignantly with his long stretches of distress.
As for Drucker and Ménochet, they vividly embody the roles of abuser and victim but have little else to work with. For example, how they remained together for at least 17 years is a mystery that Legrand shows little interest in exploring. Also the apparent sexual jealousy behind Antoine’s rage against Joséphine is unexamined and dwindles into a vestigial subplot. Instead, the film highlights the melodramatic unraveling of the family rather than examine the combination of patriarchal power, social pressure, helplessness, and emotional ambivalence that caused it.
Nonetheless, Legrand in his feature debut shows laudable technical ability and discipline. He sustains a state of suffocating tension by compressing his characters in restrictive interiors or in tight close-ups and builds suspense with such classic horror movie techniques as ominous off-screen sounds and long takes awaiting a shocking disruption. He boldly claims “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979), “The Shining” (1980), and “The Night of the Hunter” (1955) as inspirations, and though there are similarities to these classics he doesn’t approach their depth, complexity, and nuance — especially when it comes to characterization.
But the message about the plague of male domestic violence and the failure of social institutions to deal with it resonates. Subtlety is secondary when the stakes are so high.
Written and directed by Xavier Legrand. Starring Léa Drucker, Denis Ménochet, Thomas Gioria, Mathilde Auneveux. At Kendall Square. 90 minutes. PG (thematic elements and mild language). In French, with subtitles.