Director: Xavier Legrand

Starring: Léa Drucker, Denis Ménochet & Thomas Gioria

Released: 3rd September

Xavier Legrand’s heavily garlanded debut feature has the severe integrity of a film by Ken Loach or the Dardenne brothers. It is a family drama – that is, a drama about a family – that makes few concessions for comfort. Miriam and Antoine Besson have divorced, and Miriam (Léa Drucker) is seeking sole custody of their son Julien to protect him from a father she claims is violent. Antoine pleads his case as a scorned dad whose children have been turned against him by their vindictive mother. Unsure who is telling the truth, the appointed judge rules in favour of joint custody. It is a calamitous decision: what follows is often best viewed between your fingers. Antoine (Denis Ménochet) is an angry, macho bully; the scenes where Julien (Thomas Gioria) is left with his father are excruciating, as insults and put-downs pile up on his innocent, terrified son. Inevitably, it gets worse.

There are cinematic forebears to Antoine – you might think of Ray Winstone’s Ray in Nil By Mouth or as Dad in Tim Roth’s The War Zone. But while the abuse Julien suffers is not sexual, as in Roth’s film, Ménochet has the same ferocious, relentless rage of Winstone as well as his physically imposing frame. Psychologically, Antoine believes his (ex)wife and son are essentially his to do with as he pleases – he sees the terrors he inflicts on them, particularly Julien, as an unquestioned right of ownership. A third act is particularly gut-twisting, with the film’s ugly momentum reaching a climax. What begins as a kind of socio-realistic update on Kramer vs Kramer becomes something else – a simmering study of domestic abuse delivered with lean and unflinching vision from a powerful new voice in global cinema.

Michael Bonner 

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