Xavier Legrand's Custody opens with an estranged married couple presenting before a judge (Saadia Bentaieb) dressed in neutral white their respective arguments about who should care for their youngest child. Miriam (Léa Drucker) has quit her job and absconded with the family's two kids -- 11-year-old Julien (Thomas Gioria) and almost-18 Josephine (Mathilde Auneveux) -- after, she explains, experiences of spousal and child abuse. Antoine (Denis Ménochet) calmly counters: "She sprained her wrist at gym." Writer/director Legrand unfolds the 15-minute negotiation with riveting impartiality, placing the audience firmly in the shoes of Bentaieb's unsmiling arbitrator.
From there, Legrand continues this dance of ambiguity, keeping us in doubt for approximately half of the 93-minute Custody. Antoine emerges from the hearing with privileges to pick up Julien for occasional weekend visitations. Ménochet uses his considerable frame -- he hulks along, James Gandolfini-style -- to suggest both of the story's possibilities. Seen in one light, his Antoine appears a bitter brute, indignant at his wife and using his child as a pawn in their feud; in another, a source of gentle-giant tenderness, inquiring, "So I hear you're sick?" after kissing Julien on the forehead. Legrand skillfully locates tension in these driving scenes in the most mundane of noises: a turn signal, a seatbelt alarm. As in his Academy Award–nominated short Just Before Losing Everything, Legrand has again taken an under-treated subject matter and rendered it vivid via a fascination for cinematic duration. Just Before Losing Everything takes place predominantly in a department store and proceeds generally in real-time fashion. Custody's final half-hour consists mostly of two scenes, though the mode shifts to dialogue-light, high-intensity action that impresses on a directorial level even as it hedges on a psychological one.