Definitely not a ‘date movie’, this is unquestionably one of the best and most ‘triggering’ pics of the year.
The feature début from writer/director Xavier Legrand has been widely praised, and with good reason, as this is one of the most unnerving psychological dramas seen in ages with fine performances and a sense of quiet realism that veers from icily distanced to shockingly intimate. Continuing on from Legrand’s short film Just Before Losing Everything back in 2013 (although you don’t need to have seen that to follow this), it’s a character piece that depicts the darker side of custody battles, and manages to be deeply disturbing often without anything especially violent or frightening actually happening onscreen.
Boldly beginning with a long and surprisingly involved dialogue sequence shot with a documentary aspect, we watch as Antoine Besson (Dénis Menochet) attends a hearing with his sharp lawyer to seek joint custody of his young son Julien (Thomas Gioria). His soon-to-be-ex-wife Miriam (Léa Drucker) is strongly opposed, and through her lawyer cites a series of reasons he must not be permitted to see Julien, who we’re told lives in fear of his aggressive father. We’re initially left to wonder if maybe Miriam isn’t telling the whole truth and that Julien was coached while writing a letter explaining how afraid he is of Antoine. We also hear that Julien’s sister Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux) is old enough to legally make up her own mind about her Dad and that she refuses to have anything to do with him, and no one seems to think this is in any way revealing.
Miriam and the kids are staying at her parents’ home, but she’s secretly planning to move house without Antoine knowing, and great care is taken not to let on what’s happening when he appears to take Julien away for the weekend. Gioria’s portrayal of stressed pain here is remarkable, and Legrand packs the diminutive lad into his father’s cramped car, with Menochet towering over him and growing angrier, as he senses that something is up and that his family is further escaping his control.
Later scenes where he chases Julien around a depressingly ordinary-looking apartment block and then tries to excuse himself by calling his son “sweetie” in the subtitles are tremendously scary, even if, again, nothing really happens, and the sheer power comes from Legrand’s subtlety and the growing threat of danger. There are also moments where we watch Antoine alone and are allowed to see his confusion and pain up close, but any proper chance at psychoanalysis – or even just sympathy – evaporates as he decides that he’s lost everything, and all that’s left is rage and revenge.
The young Gioria and the petite Drucker are deliberately cast here, not just because they’re excellent players but they’re dwarfed by Menochet, a big bear of an actor who’s appeared in movies across Europe and beyond. He’s terrifying at times, but you do have to ask: what if Antoine had been played by a smaller player – a sort of younger Daniel Auteuil type, maybe? Would it have been as menacing? Or did it have to be the imposing Menochet, a man who looks like he could murder the supporting cast with his bare hands?