Legrand’s Greek tragedy for our times

Debut director tackles a family at war

by Richard Mowe

New talent Thomas Gioria plays Julien in Custody - "He understood how to act and he took on the subject well.” - director Xavier Legrand
New talent Thomas Gioria plays Julien in Custody - "He understood how to act and he took on the subject well.” - director Xavier Legrand Photo: UniFrance

After garnering a reputation as a prolific stage actor as well as roles in films by such directors as Philippe Garrel, Xavier Legrand has embarked on a career as a cinema director with a hard-hitting examination of the theme of domestic violence and parental warfare: Custody (Jusqu’à La Garde), which was expanded from an original treatment in an Oscar-nominated and César winning short film.

Legrand (39) who studied drama at the National Conservatory of Paris, focuses on two parents who confront each other over the custody of their child. “Thousands of people live this situation every day,” he says. “I wanted the film to reveal the deeply buried violence and silent fear. Rather than making the separation the subject of a family or social drama, I wanted to make a political film, a war film, and may be even a horror film.”

Xavier Legrand makes his feature film debut with Custody: "I am a theatre actor and I wanted to write something that would represent a Greek tragedy for our times."
Xavier Legrand makes his feature film debut with Custody: "I am a theatre actor and I wanted to write something that would represent a Greek tragedy for our times." Photo: UniFrance

He won best director at last year’s Venice Film Festival as well as the Lion of the Future award for best debut in the Festival. The film depicts the disastrous consequences of a custody decision, following young Julien (Thomas Gioria) and his mother, Miriam (Léa Drucker), as they try to lead a normal life despite the manipulative and violent ways of Julien’s father, Antoine (Denis Ménochet).

RM: You already treated the subject in a short film - so where does your interest in the topic come from?

XL: It stems from Greek Tragedy. I am a theatre actor 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. The theme of domestic violence came to me quite quickly. I discovered that the subject interested me and and I also discovered that I was not that gifted for writing for the theatre. The stage demands a real sense of poetry and language and I am much more at ease with action and images. I did a script that was intended to be a trilogy of short films but once I had done the first one I decided I wanted to make a feature rather than continue with the original idea.

The short Just Before Losing Everything (Avant Que De Tout Perdre) describes the flight of this woman with her two children. It was with the same actors and we followed her over this day when she makes the decision to leave. The format of a short film was perfect for the subject. The two other episodes would have dealt with the divorce and the custody of the child. The short film format for this part would not have been so helpful in developing the story. I thought it would be more interesting to group them all together and tell the story in one whole. So there we are - I have finished my project on domestic violence.

RM:Do you feel that the current continuing debates about attitudes to women makes it even more pertinent?

XL: We don’t talk about rape as such in the film but we do talk about male domination and where it comes from. It derives from a society which has been based on patriarchal lines without a doubt.

RM: How did you prepare yourself for writing the script?

XL: I embarked a long process of documentation - I read the transcriptions of trials and watched documentaries and talked to people. And also I watched some fiction films such as Kramer vs Kramer to see how others had dealt with the subject in fiction. And then I met women who were victims of similar situations of domestic violence. I sat in on various help groups for men with violent tendencies and I attended several family court hearings. I also spent time with the police who were called out to intervene in such situations. I did the same kind of work that I am used to doing as a theatre actor - to get under the skin of a character. So I did the same kind of process to get under the skin of domestic violence.

Family at war: Léa Drucker and (right) Denis Ménochet in Xavier Legrand’s Custody
Family at war: Léa Drucker and (right) Denis Ménochet in Xavier Legrand’s Custody Photo: UniFrance

RM: Did you have any contact with children affected by such situations?

XL: No I did not talk to any children because it would have been too sensitive and difficult for them. I am a film director rather than a social worker, and it wouldn’t have been helpful. But I did not speak to many women and mothers who described in detail the context of their break-ups and how the situation is managed - the children going off for the weekend and how they come back and all that. They described how the children coped with such situations.

RM: How did you find the child Thomas Gioria for the film?

XL: It was a long and complicated casting process. The casting director met 200 boys and I met 30 of them. When I found the right one most of my work was done. He understood how to act and he took on the subject well. I had to be very careful about playing between reality and fiction. We had a psychologist before, during and after the shoot. And we had a coach who helped him to prepare for certain scenes before filming. But the best plan to ensure that everything went well was to tell him everything that was going on. He was 12 during the shoot and he turned 13 on the last day of filming. He understood about domestic violence and male domination - I spoke to him about it all and he managed to understand the subject. I was a bit like a father figure for him - I explained things but did not try to shield from the reality. We had to make him understand that he should not be afraid to show that he was afraid.

RM: Did you change the characters in the short for the transition to the feature?

XL: Not really - they were more or less exactly the same and in fact were played by the same actors. The short film took place a year and half before the feature - and so 18 months on we find the couple in the judge’s office. It helped me, of course, having done the short film first. I knew the characters and the situation and also the tensions I wanted to explore. So it was easier writing the script because I knew all that and also the actors. It is strange how different people view the situation. Some think that she is the manipulator and he is the poor guy on the receiving end of a false accusation. I tried to keep an ambiguity.

Thomas Gioria in Custody - "He understood how to act and he took on the subject well.” - director Xavier Legrand
Thomas Gioria in Custody - "He understood how to act and he took on the subject well.” - director Xavier Legrand Photo: UniFrance

RM: What is the situation in France regarding the topic you describe?

XL: In France every two and a half days a woman dies as a result of domestic violence - either by her partner or ex-partner and it is usually at the moment of the separation or just after. Often women do not complain in case it goes again them. It us up to society to help her. These women are terrorised and when they complain they are told that it is a domestic problem. There was one case where the two children fled the house because of a row and phoned the police. They asked if things had now quietened down and they were told to phone back if things erupted again. 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.

RM: Why did you decide to move from theatre to cinema?

XL: I like directing actors. And also I wanted to write and somehow it was easier for the cinema than the theatre. I had so many scenes in my head that I thought I had to direct it otherwise I would suffer from overload. I did not want to give it to someone else who would not see things the way I do. So the switch came progressively and was not at all planned. So I will continue in this vein: at the moment I am acting in a play by Peter Handke and in February I am going to be doing a Strindberg production.

Custody goes on release in the UK and Ireland from 13 April through Picturehouse Entertainment, and in the US in June.

Glasgow Film Festival GFT 2 27 February 20.40 (in the presence of the director and actor Denis Ménochet) and 28 February 15.50.

Richard Mowe interview Xavier Legrand at the Unifrance Rendez-vous with French Cinema in Paris.

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