Filling Out the Milieu
Though it would be reading the film against the grain of many reviews and the director's own remarks, what if we see Custody as a film not about a father who tricks others into believing he is a decent man before we realise he is a monster, but about the monstrous feeling of doors shut in one's face? This wouldn't be to underestimate the fact, according to director Xavier Legrand, that "in France, every two and a half days a woman is killed by her partner", but we might wonder what it is that happens to sit behind that crime statistic. Some may reckon that if we believe the family is not entirely innocent either, a wife and two kids who want nothing to do with the burly dad Antoine (Denis Minochet), then we are somehow on the side of this insistent domestic abuse. But surely if the film is of any value it isn't because it confirms the statistic on the one hand (Antoine does try and go after the wife and son with a rifle), and resists it on the other: the police arrive in the nick of time. It needs to understand an aspect of the tension inherent in so many of these men, a tension that doesn't seem far removed from socio-political circumstances that leave many men sidelined more generally. In a world where racial minorities, women, homosexuals and immigrants are often persecuted for the colour of their skin their gender or sexual orientation, a film that makes a case for a working-class white man, one who manipulates his family into giving him time and space to make their lives even more miserable than it already happens to be, might be a bit of an ask.
But an ask is often what art insists upon: do we not feel for Medea as she kills her children; Willy Loman for his deceitfulness and weaknesses in Death of a Salesman, for Raskolnikov, the granny murderer in Crime and Punishment, and Humbert Humbert, the paedophile in Lolita? Let us not be too obvious in our examples, nor simplify often complex artworks with such terms as sympathy and pathos. But we might find ourselves watching Custody and believing there must be more to the film than what would first meet our eye: that perhaps we should question not so much the wife, her children, and her parents, but work with an idea like exclusion which can comprehend an aspect of Minochet's behaviour without regarding his attitude as his problem alone. If 150 or so men kill their loved ones each year in France we might wonder if they all have similar characteristics. The French stats more or less match the British ones. A Guardian article headline notes "one woman dead every three days", as the article itself says "in the year to March 2017, 1.9 million people in England and Wales - 1.2m women and 713,000 men - experienced domestic abuse, according to the Office for National Statistics. Two women are killed every week in England by a partner or ex-partner." The article recognizes that part of the problem is the cuts in public funding that means far fewer refuges are available. Maybe Legrand's film can help alter the perception in people's mind that this issue has nothing to do with the broader public: that these are personal situations that go wrong. Perhaps they are; perhaps they're not. A film like Custody can be used by funding bodies to insist more money should be invested in protecting women (and it is usually women) from violent men (it is usually men).
A work of art, however, has a different set of priorities from a tool that wants to change people's minds, or make them see an issue more clearly, and one way of exploring this is to think of the difference between a theme and an issue. An issue would be domestic violence; a theme would be exclusion. If we provocatively want to claim that the film's validity does not lie in the director's professed belief that he wants to flag up how manipulative the husband is in getting his own way, and that we should all be much more aware of such dangerous men, but in the problem of exclusion, the film is of rather more interest as a work of art. Trevor Johnson notes in Sight and Sound that while the English translation has the son refer to his dad as that man, the original French is l'autre - the other. This is a term often used theoretically to describe many who are very much not white males, but blacks, Arabs, the dispossessed and the sexually dissident. Can we feel a sense of exclusion for a man who would not automatically be entitled to that sympathy? If Legrand's film is of interest it resides in its capacity to suggest a sympathy towards a monster that the film ostensibly does not offer, but that an aspect of the film's pro-filmic reality cannot entirely hide.
To understand what we mean by this, we can think of three components of the pro-filmic image that would distinguish it from a book. The first is the use of actors, the second the use of locations, and the third the specificity of the form. "I'm not the character in the movie, guys", Minochet said at a press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival. In another interview for Picture House he said that he tried to understand the character through looking at the women's testimonials and also through seeing the character as obsessive. An actor is not like the character on the page, nor even an actor in the theatre. A novelist can choose to do whatever he wants with a character with no resistance from a world beyond his imagination, except perhaps a publisher. And while the theatre has an actor it also has the play itself, much less amenable to change in the thespian's hands. As Brando would say, while he couldn't always, or wouldn't wish to, remember his script lines, many years after performing them he still remembered great theatre writing. Here was dialogue that couldn't easily be altered, and Brando respected the poetry in the prose. " [In cinema] you save all that time not learning lines...and it improves the spontaneity". "Some things you can adlib, some things you have to commit to memory, like Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams - where the language has value. You can't adlib Tennessee Williams." Cinema is thus a much more flexible medium, with actors more inclined both to protect their character and create their motivation. A good director will often understand this. As Bob Rafelson says, "if you're going to hire the best actors in the world, and you've spent months and months searching for them, their contribution on the set is going to be infinitely more interesting than your preconceived notions." (Figures of Light) Legrand might very understandably have strong views on domestic abuse, saying "these women are terrorised and when they complain they are told that it is a domestic problem...France is lagging behind other countries in terms of protection for children. As a citizen and as a man, it raises a lot of questions for me. It makes me uncomfortable, angry even." (eyeforfilm.com) But if the film is less interesting than it might be it rests in this belief making itself too clearly present in the film. Legrand, who is also a theatre actor, said "and I wanted to write something that would represent a Greek tragedy for our times. I wanted to explore menace in the family, blood ties, and all those kind of themes", yet perhaps imposes too much the sociological and the theatrical onto the cinematic. Yet there is nevertheless in Minochet's performance a pained man whose feelings cannot be reduced to the exigencies of the plot. When he turns up at his daughter's eighteenth birthday party he is, of course, a menace from his wife's family's point of view, but a hurt figure from his, someone who feels humiliated and lost, locked out of the family environment. If Minochet played the role as the psycho about to let loose, then he would playing a part rather performing a role. A good actor will often fight the script for the purposes of the character not because he wants to keep an audience guessing but because their character is not a villain to them.
Legrand's film gives us a sense of location not especially in its setting (where it was filmed is not easy to discern) but in its milieu. Many a film has a clear setting but an indistinct milieu: it tells us where it is set but gives us little sense of the environment. We might know the film is set in Paris or New York because of the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building, but after that we may not easily locate the streets of the city as the film could have been filmed elsewhere. Trainspotting makes very clear, for example, it is an Edinburgh based film before using numerous Glasgow locations. No, what we mean by milieu is the attention it gives to the reality of its environment as the director shows clearly the social situations of the characters. These are working class people without too much money, and whether it is the home of Antoine's parents or the council flat his wife manages to find, the film carefully gives us a sense of the social milieu in which they move. This is never more present than in the local hall the daughter hires for her birthday party as the film focuses on long takes of the family and friends trying to enjoy themselves, with the daughter and her boyfriend devoting the early hours of the morning to tidying everything up after them. There is no sense this is merely a suspense device: that by tidying up the daughter and her boyfriend are absent when Antoine comes over to the flat to terrorise the mother and son, who are thus alone in the apartment. This is not the often empty suspense of the crosscut that wonders whether those in peril will be saved in time by the hero; this is Legrand making clear that the characters the film focuses upon come out of a specific milieu that requires making the most of the school hall and making it look tidy again having done so.
Film goes to great lengths to achieve the minimum amount of plausibility: flats are filled with items that suggest a lived live; characters must be dressed in a manner that indicates their financial wherewithal or their social status, accents are mastered that can reflect regional specificity, all of which can be easily eschewed in the novel if the writer so wishes. But once having done this, the film then frequently insists that since it has established location it needn't attend very much to the milieu. That Legrand does gives a quality to the places he films also gives a specificity to the characterization. Trevor Johnston may say that "the father's command-and-control version of masculinity [is] also seen in the father's brusque, dictatorial behaviour of Antoine's own elderly papa ( Sight and Sound), but we might wish to debate that, seeing in the father (and mother) an exhausted awareness that their son just keeps screwing up. There is nothing to suggest that Antoine's dad is the grand patriarch except when he insists Antoine stops harassing his grandson. Initially, he offers it beseechingly and then loses his temper when he sees Antoine ignoring his remark. For Johnston's claim to hold true we would have to see Antoine's father's aggressive throughline running along the film, while instead Legrand focuses chiefly on the parents as beleaguered figures wanting the best for their son and for their grandchildren.
By filling out the milieu rather than concentrating on the drama of bad behaviour, Legrand asks us less to judge than to comprehend. There is nothing in the milieu itself that asks us to read the behaviour in a particular way, as we might in a generic piece about bad parenting that hyperbolizes the aggressive disregard at every opportunity: guns around the house, cigarettes piling up in ashtrays, beer cans littering the floor, curtains closed in the afternoon. One might say in response that Legrand is subtler than that. But subtlety is only as good as the ambiguity it can produce. To suggest subtly that Antoine's father is a brute is to deny the ontological ambiguity of reality that Andre Bazin so admired and to which much French cinema is still respectful over. Subtlety would be making the grandfather monstrous without the mise en scene of monstrosity, but ambiguity would leave us wondering whether the grandfather is monstrous at all. There is not enough evidence to suggest he is, even if we might understandably wonder where Antoine has got his dubious parenting skills from, a point we will come back to later.
This leads us to the form. Legrand insists on naturalistic lighting and avoiding non-diegetic music: two areas in which a generic film would assert itself through lighting the father to illustrate villainous intent, and offer a soundtrack to confirm that villainy. Legrand may have said when interviewed "it's important to show that he's not a monster, he's a man. He's unhappy, he's not good at loving, things have gone badly for him. It's important to show that he's not just stupid, he's a human being. Antoine feels he's rejected by everybody, he doesn't recognise his own violence and so he feels that he is a victim. (Cinevue) But he has also insisted, "my idea was to trick the audience because I thought, "Ok, it will start off as a courtroom drama and then it will turn into The Shining" [laughs]. But even though I switch from one genre to another, I wasn't thinking of a specific visual style. 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." Legrand manages to restrain his style so that the generic doesn't become prominent as he refuses to light the scenes and utilise music in a manner that would lead to the generically unequivocal, but he nevertheless signals clearly enough to the viewer that Antoine is the villain of the piece. The form as we would usually perceive it doesn't make him villainous, but the diegesis itself finally doesn't resist it.
Yet we might assume that the film would have been better had it resisted both the thriller element and the assertiveness of its message. When a man kills a loved one every two and a half days it could seem remiss to offer an even-handed account when the reality indicates it is very uneven in the first place. But would there not be many instances where a man is driven a little crazy by a woman's inconsistencies and lies, and where the man doesn't try and kill his former spouse? There is a hint of this in the film, indicating that Miriam is hardly honest near the beginning in the lengthy scene with the judge who must decide whether to allow Antoine access to his son. As the judge says she isn't sure which one is lying the most, so we may wonder whether the film will explore the nature of a relationship that, in falling apart, makes the truth of the given situation collapse too. A little later in the film, Antoine's mother gives Miriam a bag with stuff for the kids, with the grandmother clearly distressed by the situation and which the mother handles dismissively. We know also that the children are told to lie to their father, and when Antoine asks Miriam if there is anybody else she insists that there isn't. Later at the daughter's birthday party, it seems that she has a new partner as a man wonders whether he should stay the night or not.
Now there are very good reasons why Miriam would need to lie to a man like Antoine. If she tells the truth about where she is staying Antoine will harass her on the doorstep - which is exactly what he does when his son is forced into divulging the new location. If she admitted there is someone new in her life Antoine would be unlikely to take it well. Nevertheless, a film more interested in the subtlety of perspective allied to the ambiguity of motive would perhaps have indicated that Miriam had a history of dishonesty, just as Antoine has a history of aggression. This would make for an appalling situation without making it so clearly a one-sided affair. Legrand by the film's conclusion suggests it is a one-sided situation despite the subtlety of his aesthetic: as if the assertiveness of his position mattered more than the specificity of his art. And yet Legrand ends his film on an odd note. The neighbour hears the commotion across the hallway and phones the police, and the film concludes on a point of view from her apartment as Miriam and the police talk, and then Miriam closes her front door. No word of thanks is offered to the neighbour, though Miriam must have known a neighbour has contacted the police, and it would be likely that this would have been the neighbour. If Miriam might seem to react as if the neighbour is nosy, we know that the woman has acted out of solicitude, and also as a consequence of loneliness. Earlier in the film, as Antoine manages to get into the building, he treats her with consideration while she exits it, holding the door for her. Here in the film's closing shot, Miriam closes her front door on the old woman, a woman whom we see clearly lives alone.
What is Legrand trying to achieve in this moment that may bring to mind a series of scenes in Haneke's Code Inconnu. "in terms of mise en scene, I've always admired Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Haneke, Claude Chabrol, to name a few" Legrand said in a Variety interview, as we might recall the scenes in Code Inconnu with Juliette Binoche hearing noises from a nearby apartment, suggesting a child being beaten. In Haneke's elliptical account we don't quite know exactly what has been happening to the child, but we do see Binoche attending the little girl's funeral. We are left wondering what is it to love thy neighbour, and left wondering again in Custody, and we may ask if Miriam is capable of loving her neighbour too. No, would seem to be the answer in Custody's closing shot, which gives the film a final ambiguity that nothing in Legrand's interviews registers, and a great deal in the film contradicts. If we were to wish to piece together a film that makes Miriam a manipulative, heartless woman, we would be reading against the grain of a film that makes clear it has a message. We would not wish to do that, not least because in doing so we may appear to be condoning behaviour that leads to the death of numerous women in France, Britain and elsewhere. But we do believe the film is a more ambiguous work than the director's comments indicate, as though he wanted to make a film with a clear point, but also a work with content less didactic. This might not only rest in the need to acknowledge that his film is more than a woman in peril movie. It would also be to make sense of situations that might end in unequivocal tragedy, with murderers and victims, but to acknowledge also that the process towards that awful result is more complicated than the conclusion. Because the film doesn't fill in the lives of the characters before the hearing that leads to Antoine gaining part-custody, we don't know whether Antoine has always been a bullying aggressive father, or the situation increasingly turns him into one. We do know that Miriam has become scared of him, but when he suggests he might change, should we dismiss it so readily? The truth is he will change for the worse, but has he not changed once already - into the aggressive thug we commonly see in the film? Or did Miriam marry someone she knew to be capable of bullying, jealousy and manipulation and had kids with him anyway? This could seem like we are using that old saw of blaming the wife for the sins of the husband - that she pushed him to it, or that she stupidly put the kids at risk by having children with this man who was always aggressive. Of that we have no idea, but a complex situation can acknowledge that the wife is as manipulative as the husband but without the force that will lead to murder. The husband can feel like the wronged man and have a point, but that doesn't remotely justify the action - it simply gives perspective to events that aren't black and white. A murderously inclined conclusion can lead to a simplification of the complex problematic, leaving us thinking that the man is always a murderer waiting to happen: an immutable fact rather than a mutable process.
When Wendy Ide says about Antoine deserving access to his son that "any uncertainty swiftly evaporates as Julien is coerced into his first court-ordered weekend with his dad. First-time actor Gioria brilliantly captures the physicality of fear. Primal survival instincts kick in," she adds, "the boy goes limp in the suffocating bear hug with which Antoine claims him; his eyes averted. The child has learned never to look directly at his father, mindful of what terrors he might rouse."(Guardian) Actually, the boy on a couple of occasions reacts with surly irritation, as if a son annoyed by his father's presence as much as scared by it. Perhaps this is the director delaying the moment of revelation, but this would again be no more than a device, and we think the film is a little better than that. Are we in danger of reading such moments retrospectively: that the worse the father is seen to be the worse the father's earlier behaviour is viewed? This is part of our problem with Johnston's claims concerning Antoine's father. Are we insisting that the grandfather is a problem because the son happens to be, and are we reading Antoine's behaviour into the father in a moment of false equivalence: that if the son is given to violence then surely the father must have a problem too? Who is to say it isn't the wife's manipulations rather than the grandfather's genes that lead Antoine to be who he is? On the evidence we have, the grandfather would seem to us a more honest and forthright character than Miriam. When he tells Antoine to leave the boy alone he does so initially with a sense of the boy's feelings; when he does it again he see that as Antoine will not respect the feelings of his son, so he sees little reason to respect Antoine's either.
We have no interest here in excusing Antoine's behaviour, let alone condoning it. Our interest is more to understand the complexity of a given situation in film form. If Legrand took the director's prize at Venice, the Silver Lion, it shouldn't rest on his socio-political commentary, but on the film's capacity to indicate that though we might be pleased the police arrive in the nick of time, we should also feel ambivalent about the idea that the father of his children, the ex-husband of his wife, has been arrested for behaviour that we will fail to understand if we too gleefully approve of the arrest. When Ide says that Antoine "lacks the shape-shifting, ambiguous quality present in some of cinema's other spousal abusers - Luis Tosar in Take My Eyes or Ray Winstone in Nil by Mouth. He lacks any spark of the charm he must have once possessed" she has a point, and the comparisons are useful, but we must acknowledge that this might be a failure of our faculties rather than the character or actor's. In other words, Minchon plays Antoine from within the character's pain and gives him no other context but the family. (Nil by Mouth for example very much fills out the East London milieu, showing Winstone a skilful a raconteur.) Perhaps the best way to see the film, and the most provocative, is to view Antoine not as the villain of the piece but as a lonely soul even he cannot reach. It is as though the woman across the way knows of loneliness and desperation too, and that while she wants to save lives she is aware also of lives lost in other, quieter ways as well.
© Tony McKibbin