Courtroom decision spirals into violent nightmare in Xavier LeGrand's Custody
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Courtroom decision spirals into violent nightmare in Xavier LeGrand's Custody

We first meet Antoine and Miriam in a judge's office, where their respective solicitors wrangle over the division of property and custody of their children. The children are conspicuous by their absence. Josephine, who is almost 18 and seemingly poised to study music, has the right to make her own choice; she has already declared that she never wants to see her father again. Their son Julien has sent a written statement with his mother saying he feels the same, but he is only 11; there is a reasonable suspicion that his mother has browbeaten him into it.

Antoine (Denis Menochet), a hulk of a man already under a restraining order that means he cannot know where his wife lives, pleads quietly for the right to see his son. Every child deserves a father, his female solicitor protests. Antoine's eyes shine with tears; his wisp of a wife (Lea Drucker), visibly worn down by the years, keeps silent. Eventually, the judge rules. Antoine will have his son to himself on alternate weekends, collecting him on the relatively neutral ground of his grandparents' house.

Lea Drucker and Denis Menochet in Xavier LeGrand's <i>Custody</i>.

Lea Drucker and Denis Menochet in Xavier LeGrand's Custody.

Xavier LeGrand had been an actor for around two decades when he made his Oscar-nominated short film, Just Before Losing Everything, about a woman's battle to escape a violent marriage. His plan was to make two more short films with the same cast that would deal with the aftermath of that flight from danger, as Antoine's rage went on to a permanent boil and he began hunting down his wife. Thinking about it, he realised he really wanted to make a film about the effects on the whole family. "I realised that format wouldn't really do it justice. So I turned the two short films into a feature; with the long film I finished my project."

In France, he says, domestic violence is called "conjugal violence", suggesting that the enraged men who kill some 150 women a year are committing a crime of passion, the fruit of a failed relationship in which both parties must be at some sort of fault. It is partly because of that word "conjugal", he says, that "many judges and lawyers in France have the idea that if violence is only directed at the spouse, then their children won't be in danger. The question asked by the film is: can a violent husband be a good father?"

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Thomas Gioria and Denis Menochet in Custody.

Thomas Gioria and Denis Menochet in Custody.

Clearly not: if Antoine doesn't hit Julien (Thomas Gioria) on their miserable outings, that is because he has already terrorised him to the point of paralysis; the boy avoids meeting his father's eyes, barely speaks and is clearly incapable of eating. Out there with Dad he is alone on the front line, charged with keeping his family's secrets safe; when the visits are over and he returns to the grandparents' home, they pull him inside as if he were being pursued by monsters. It is inevitable that Antoine will manage, through a combination of trickery and bullying, to extract from Julien his new address. Armed with that, he is ready to fight back.

I meet LeGrand at the San Sebastian Film Festival, where he arrives a couple of weeks after winning two prestigious Lion awards at the festival in Venice. The story he is telling, he says, draws as much on the classics as much as more recent films about domestic strife. "I came to it gradually," he says. "I knew I wanted to do something about the family, the household and, after all, I am an actor; my roots are in Greek tragedy, which deals with violence in families."

The difference is that there is no blood, no equivalent of Medea slitting her children's throats. "Because what I realised is that it is now taboo just to see it, that violence within the family. I did a lot of research meeting victims, reading judgements and going to trials," says LeGrand. "Violence is hidden by victims as well as perpetrators. It is never seen, never shown outside the home, so I decided I wouldn't show it either. It's all in the context."

Josephine (Mathilde Auneveux) has her own story; a promising musician with conservatoire ambitions, she has started bunking off school to see her hipster boyfriend, disappearing overnight and defying her mother's smallest demands. As the film progresses, it is as if she is inhabiting a parallel narrative. "It is a secondary intrigue, there partly to allow us to breathe," says LeGrand. "But, in fact, it is related. In my research, I found that that children can relate to family violence differently depending on their sex. In boys there tend to be two reactions: one is to reproduce this violence and the other possibility is to be hyper-vigilant, protective of the mother. But in girls, the urge is to escape the nuclear family and prematurely create their own."

Director Xavier LeGrand.

Director Xavier LeGrand.

The two strands come together at Josephine's birthday party. One moment she is greeting her guests, a picture of elegant young womanhood; next she is blanching over a text from her estranged father. He is waiting outside. At this point, the film slips from cool social realism – the opening scene, in particular, is reminiscent of the Dardenne brothers – into the suspense genre. In a final crisis, Miriam and Julien are cornered in their own bathroom; we've gone from the Dardennes to The Shining.

"That was a challenge, not to make the mistake of falling into caricature," says LeGrand. "I had a fairly set schema, beginning with the courtroom decision and ending with a kind of nightmare, but a nightmare that speaks of social themes." He didn't want to trigger a laugh. "I wanted to have this tension triggered by sound and by the repetition of these situations. We see the same things, but they are deformed, in a way. And the spiral of violence intensifies."

The fact that this strategy succeeds – quite brilliantly – is largely thanks to Menochet's commitment to playing Antoine, the great bear no sane child would want to cuddle. Inhabiting that mindset for weeks can't have been easy. "It was brave of him to do it," agrees LeGrand. He describes Antoine as "a narcissistic pervert" who doesn't recognise his own violence and thus feels his rejection – by his wife, his children and even his own parents – as an outrage. "I thought it was interesting to show someone of that sensibility on film. During the filming, what was important for him was to appear sincere without thinking of what happens at the end. Each time he went on I said to him: 'Remember, you think you are the victim. You are not guilty.'"

Interestingly, many of the festival reviews of Custody treat it as a film about a couple splitting up. One critic compares it with Asghar Farhadi's extraordinary A Separation; another lines it up next to Kramer vs Kramer. But Custody is only tangentially about unrequited love or the dissolution of a family. Its subject is violence: the violence done by a man to the people he believes he owns. To shift this into the melancholy minor key of lost love is just one more way of skirting around that violence, diluting it with caveats and compromise – one more way, in short, of keeping up the taboo. "Very often, women who fall victim to violence are in denial. They tell themselves it's OK, that it's normal," says LeGrand. "They have to understand that they don't deserve what's happening to them."

Violence is hidden by victims as well as perpetrators. It is never seen, never shown outside the home, so I decided I wouldn't show it either.

Xavier LeGrand

Custody screens from September 27, with advance screenings from September 21-23.

Stephanie Bunbury joined Fairfax after studying fine arts and film at university, but soon discovered her inner backpacker and obeyed that call. She has spent the past two decades flitting between Europe and Australia, writing about film, culture high and low and the arts.