This month’s best film

A harrowing but important new French drama previewing this weekend takes us to an uncomfortable place


Weirdly, earlier this year I nominated the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival’s Top 5 and didn’t include its best – Xavier Legrand’s searing domestic drama Custody. What was I thinking? My excuse was that I hadn’t yet seen it, although those Best Director and Best First Feature wins at the Venice Film Festival made sure it was always going to be on my radar. And I was so knocked out by its three incredible single take scenes, one of them the nerve-shredding climax, that I immediately went back and saw it a second time. The distributor labels it “heart-stopping,” and yeah, I reckon… If I was a lawyer I’d advise they put a team of paramedics on hand for every screening – or else face liability for some unsuspecting viewer’s cardiac arrest!

The first of those impressive scenes is right at the beginning, when for what seems like an interminable time we listen to two duelling lawyers, and then a female magistrate (Saadia Bentaieb) outline a custody case and the judgement, all in rapid fire monologues. Before the bench with a stationary camera framing them mercilessly sit Miriam (Léa Drucker) – mousy, fragile and demure, and Antoine (Denis Ménochet) – a big forceful man but here polite and solicitous. “One of you is lying” the magistrate says. “Which one?” It’s a clever set-up, and casts enough doubt on both these people for our judgement, and sympathies to remain suspended. The law is the law of course, a decision must be made and only documented evidence can be considered. Against Miriam’s fervent wishes, Antoine gets limited weekend access to their son 11 year-old Julien (Thomas Gioria). Well then, the law is an ass…

It doesn’t take long for the clock to start ticking, softly at first, and then loudly as the tension inexorably builds. Even though we’re cleverly kept off guard for quite some time – the clues were there before we even left the courtroom. The couple’s soon-to-be-18 daughter Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux) is old enough to be exempt from the judgement, and she’s elected never to see her father again. And Miriam’s actual address is not supposed to be revealed to her husband – presumably because of a previous AVO. Now the clearly traumatised Julien is the meat in the sandwich, or rather both the weapon and victim of an increasingly toxic battle. This stark, social realist-style drama reveals some pretty unpleasant truths about the nature of abusive relationships, and Legrand’s bravura technique of using long, sometimes wordless shots to reveal the real dynamics at the heart of this failed family (extended, for grandparents on both side are drawn in) works particularly well. Equally his brave idea of dispensing with a score and using only ambient background sound at crucial moments is brilliant in keeping us edgily on our toes.

This is no polite “Kramer vs Kramer” domestic drama – there’s no neat Hollywood-style wrap-up in store. Though the exceptionally assured way this promising new director finally reveals what he had in mind for us all along isn’t for the weakhearted. I think I mentioned that… Treat it as a trigger warning. M from Sept 27. Inner west cinemas include Palace Norton St, Central and Dendy Newtown  ★★★★1/2

Trailer, more info and list of all cinemas here

Also opening this week

Those who prefer their cinema experience to be a soothing reinforcement of everything they already think are in for a treat this week, with the “nicest” Australian film in years also hitting local screens. How can anyone resist something as cuddly as your favourite warm blanket?  Heck, even David Stratton gave Ladies in Black an ecstatic 4.5 stars… Mind you our verdict (review here) was a somewhat more restrained, and it seems to have made Vicky Roach writing in the Sunday Telegraph positively cranky. True, the film does throw its mainly female audience a few curly ones. One young character (played wonderfully by Angourie Rice) wants to go to Sydney University, though her fuddy duddy, thick as a brick dad (lazily played by Shane Jacobson) doesn’t think girls should go (boo, hiss). Considering that Sydney Uni is now, according to its own young feminist activists, right at the epicentre of what they call a “rape crisis”, maybe dad was right! Ok, just saying… For me the best thing about this deliriously nostalgic film is getting to ride through the middle of the city down to Circular Quay on Sydney’s light rail – as Rachael Taylor does below. Well the 1959 version. Who knows how long we’ll have to wait for our new one…

Reviews – Russell Edwards