In what I could only describe as ‘domestic horror’, Xavier Legrand’s Silver Lion winning debut feature, Custody (Jusqu’à la Garde) – a continuation of his Academy Award nominated precursor short, Just Before Losing Everything (Avant que de Tout Perdre) – systematically ramps up the emotional tension to such an unbearable level that by the time the credits rolled I was having difficultly breathing. With Custody having made its way to cinema screens this past weekend, DN spoke to Xavier about the copious research into domestic abuse which informed the film and how he retooled the genre tropes of the thriller to better serve this unflinching observation of the traumatic effects of manipulation and fear.
The events depicted in Custody are underpinned by the extensive research you did into domestic abuse. What did you find in that preparatory material which then you brought to this project?
I discovered a lot of painful things and stories. I discovered that fear is one of the major elements of domestic violence, which often prevents women from leaving abusive partners because they know that if they leave, they will be even more in danger. Women who died as a result of spousal violence died most of the time at or just after separation.
I also found that in many cases the children were present when their mothers were murdered. I have also discovered that our society turns a blind eye to these crimes and indirectly allows these kinds of situations to happen again. So I tried to tell how, in our society today, this kind of situation happens every day.
Custody was proceed by your Oscar-nominated short Just Before Losing Everything – how do the events of that earlier film fit with this story? When did it become clear that it was more effective to continue this narrative as a feature rather than in the final two parts of the trilogy of shorts you’d initially planned?
In the short film we see what happens a year before: the day when this woman (Miriam) has the courage to flee her husband (Antoine) with her two children (Josephine and Julien). This film is more of an action film than a thriller. The short film format was the best way to tell this fateful day.
It was when I was editing this film and starting to write the rest of the story that I realized that continuing my trilogy project couldn’t fit. The continuation required a longer time and the other two parts absolutely had to be combined into one. The problem of divorce and custody of the child are directly linked to the way in which this break-up was to end, because this makes it possible to tackle the problem of children, who are all too often forgotten victims in this type of conflict.
When I met women who were victims of this kind of violence, I was struck by the state of alert that they lived every day.
The film’s tension slowly tightens like a vice, much in the manner of a thriller. Were you consciously applying the cinematic tropes of that genre to this domestic story? What techniques did you deploy to steadily ramp up that tension?
The thriller genre was present from the beginning of writing. The stories that some women told me were really like thrillers. That is the essence of this kind of situation. Like I said before, fear is at the heart of domestic and family violence. It was delicate to introduce only one genre on this so difficult and painful subject. It had to be organic, so, make the thriller appear from the heart of the story and not formally impose it. That’s why I tried to reinvent the thriller, defining it as “the daily thriller”.
By leaning on the sounds of reality and by evacuating any musical temptation which would have come to comment on the situations and indicate to the spectator that the danger arrives or that such or such scene will become tense. Real time also allows the viewer to be completely immersed in the situation with the characters. Because the tension comes from the time that unfolds, that lasts, that listens to silence, that installs a particular climate, and not by a muscular editing, punctuated by music that punctuates the changes of images and shots. The seat belt alarm then becomes a true symbol. The characters do not need to express their feelings. The alarm speaks for them, and the spectator can live completely the situations with the characters.
How difficult was it to cast the character of Julien given that the role required an almost anti-chemistry between father and son but the opposite with his mother?
There was no particular difficulty. When I met Thomas Gioria, I was immediately convinced that he was the actor who could play this character. He had that sensitivity, that maturity, that fragility and that courage that the character required.
Despite this being Thomas’ debut performance, the dark emotions his character experiences are painfully palpable throughout. Did your personal experience as a child actor inform the approach you took when preparing him for this role off and on set?
I’ve played on stage since I was a teenager. I started at the same age as Thomas so I know that at that age, the mind is very clear about reality and fiction. The only difficulty at this age is not to hide behind the shyness and the text to say, which can sometimes make the game false. It was just necessary to make him understand that all the work of preparation before the shooting exists only to make him more solid in what he must play, but that he must not repeat exactly what happened during rehearsals. On the contrary, he had to make himself available for the present moment of the shooting and that anything could happen.
The film makes interesting use of shifting perspectives, switching to the point of view of those Antoine attempts to manipulate as the story progresses. Was that a technique predefined in the script and how did it then inform Nathalie Durand’s measured approach to Custody’s cinematography?
Indeed, the structure of the script was constructed as follows: Antoine is followed, not from his point of view but from the point of view of the characters he must manipulate. So, the viewer follows the point of view of the Judge, then Julien and finally Miriam. Our work with Nathalie Durand was to integrate these changes of point of view in the way we cut the shots and filmed the situations. In Julien’s part, for example, we are frequently at child’s height. In the Judge’s case, everything is rigorously filmed from her point of view. The plans were built so that we would discover, like her, the couple whose divorce and custody she must decide.
It wasn’t until the credits rolled that I was consciously aware of the lack of score. What led you to that decision?
From the beginning of my project, I didn’t want music. This principle already exists in Just Before Losing Everything. I adopted this bias from the very beginning of writing. When I met women who were victims of this kind of violence, I was struck by the state of alert that they lived every day. One of them told me that from the way her ex-husband put the key in the lock to enter their home at night, she knew if she was going to be beaten. So I understood that to talk about this subject in the cinema, we had to transcribe this constant state of alert.
The film asks a very important question: can an abusive partner be a good parent?
You’ve spoken of your desire to raise public awareness about the realities of domestic abuse, what do you hope viewers, especially vulnerable women and those charged with a responsibility to support them, will take away from the film?
The film is not so much for women who experience this kind of situation, but probably for others who do not understand why a woman stays so long with an abusive husband. When we do not live this painful situation from the inside, we cannot understand. Women know very well that the best solution is to leave, but they also know that they will be even more in danger, especially when there are children. After separation, violent and manipulative men use their paternal rights to continue harassing, threatening and intimidating their ex-wives. The film asks a very important question: can an abusive partner be a good parent? All those concerned with this essential issue must be able to change the way they see things.
How do you feel now that Custody is complete and out in the world?
How am I feeling? I don’t know, I don’t know. Proud (perhaps) to have accomplished a long term work and to have succeeded in my project which will have required me to undertake ten years of work, research, writing and directing.
What will we see from you next?
Another movie, no doubt. But on a completely different subject and in a different genre. I’m writing and all this remains confidential for the moment.