Filmmaker Xavier Legrand builds upon solid groundwork with ‘CUSTODY’

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

There are very few short films that stick with audiences years later. To craft a genuinely indelible, thrilling tale in such a short timeframe of less than 30 minutes – one that firmly grabs the attention of its viewer – is a true feat. Writer-director Xavier Legrand’s JUST BEFORE LOSING EVERYTHING did just that. Now, Legrand continues the same story set up in that Academy Award®-nominated short film with CUSTODY (JUSQU’À LA GARDE).

Miriam (Léa Drucker) and Anton (Denis Ménochet) have divorced and are in the midst of an ugly custody battle over their tween son Julien (Thomas Gioria). Miriam is fiercely trying to protect him against his angry, abusive father – a charge Anton vehemently denies. Unsure who is telling the truth, the judge appoints joint custody. Havoc ensues from there.

At the recent press day for the film, I spoke with the affable director about everything from expanding on his short story, to the music selection’s thematic ties, to the film’s cinematic touchstones.

After making a short, most filmmakers remake the same story just elongated. Yours is unique because you continue the story already set up. Did you already have that in mind when you made the short?

I was lucky from the start because I had a trilogy [of shorts] in mind. I knew there would be about a year of time between the first one and the second one, which would be about the custody of the children. And the third would be about the attempt to kill them. I realized that it would be better to bring those two shorts together.

How difficult to reunite the cast? I know you have different actors who play Julien.

On one hand, it was not. All the cast was very eager to come back and work on this story – not just the cast, but also the technicians were very excited to work on the film. Of course, what was very difficult was to find that everyone was available at the same time. We had to delay the shooting one year.

What didn’t you know when you made the short that you were able to get right this time around?

For one, it was the ability to go way more in depth with the psychology of the character and, in a feature, to make choices that more challenging and more interesting. As well, the short was more based on the action, but in the long form, I wanted to turn it into a thriller and near the edge of a horror film.

Conversely, what did you think you knew this time that maybe proved to be more of a challenge – either technically or narratively?

On the contrary, the things I was able to touch upon in the short, I was able to go further. Because in the short film, the wife is going back and forth – four times – between the judge and the supermarket. The crew were saying, “It’s a short film. For time, don’t you think it’s too much?” But I know that in real time it was about building up tension. It was better to take this time rather than edit this down in order to build up this great tension.

Without spoiling anything, I loved how it’s bookended. First we see the judge in litigation examining this couple and, in the finale, we see a concerned neighbor judging them. Did you know immediately this was how you were going to tie it together?

Yes. It was important to be let inside this family and be living through the outside eyes. It was important to enhance the subject and put it in the limelight.

Is there a trick to cultivating this tension? It’s perfectly paced.

Yes, it’s effectively coming in and going out through those two characters, in both of those scenes, through real time. As well, the absence of a score, but the presence of concrete sound around them. And, of course, to hold on revealing everything to maintain the doubt so people are never sure what is what. It puts the spectator in an activated position.

Josephine sings “Proud Mary” and I was left thinking it was a conscious selection on your part. What led you to choose that song?

I chose it for several reasons. First, I love that song. Because the character is going to the music academy, I wanted to give her this rapport to the music and this knowledge and to pick a hit song that was not contemporary to show her knowledge of music history. At the same time, a song that, even now, hasn’t become old yet. It’s still lovely now. The lyric of the song talks about starting gently and finishing very brutally, which fits with the storyline of the film. Of course, there’s the parallel too of the lifestyle of Ike and Tina Turner and their own abusive situation.

When the cast first auditioned for their parts, what stood out to you about each of them, that made them perfect?

All the actors, except Denis [Menochet], come from theater. It was very important for me to show people we’re not used to seeing on the big screen and people that have a real knowledge of the theater – particularly the judge and the two lawyers. We shot it in real time and they really had to convey to the audience something complex, something fraught and reflective. It took lots of know-how. What I can say about all of them as an ensemble is that they have a humility about their work approach so they put themselves behind the character. The character is the most important – and they don’t dominate the character. They’re not the type to overplay, or be more visible in the scene. They avoid this kind of downfall.

What were some of the cinematic touchstones you looked to? I spotted things like KRAMER VS. KRAMER, and toward the end, THE SHINING.

NIGHT OF THE HUNTER was another a big influence – not so much about how it’s filmed, but, in the writing process, how you go from social commentary and to a horror situation.

What did you learn about yourself making this movie?

I learned to trust my instinct. I had to fight for my choices a lot of the time. Lots of people would come to me and say, “Are you sure you want to do that? It’s a little risky.” But I stood up for the thing I had an intuition for and learned that I could trust my instinct – in particular for the last scene. It was shot entirely in the dark and I had to really fight for this choice.

CUSTODY is now playing in New York (IFC Center). It opens in Los Angeles on July 13 (at Laemmle Monica Film Center and Playhouse 7). A slow rollout in other theaters follows. For where to find it playing near you, go here.

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