Tag Archives: Andrei Zvyagintsev

CUSTODY (Jusqu’à la garde)

Three and a half Star Rating

“…an explosive finale which, whether pre-meditated or not, probably owes much to the late great Stanley Kubrick himself.” – Wayward Wolf.

Custody is, for want of a better term, bleak. Unrelentingly so for that matter.

Right from the off we are dropped into an arduous legal meeting between the two parents, their lawyers and an overseeing judge, in which each side outlines their personal wishes with regard to the guardianship of their youngest son, Julien. It’s a tedious, drawn-out affair which more than anything feels like a pre-determined i-dotting/ T-crossing exercise for all concerned.

Such extended, scarcely edited scenes are a dominant feature of Xavier Legrand‘s direction. He also elects to dispense with the need for any kind of incidental music score, bar one or two key scenes; a tactic which by and large is very effective.

Legrand’s approach hints at this film being something of a slow burner, which it very much is. Indeed, though there is an underlying sense of unease that lingers throughout, it really is only once we reach the final act that all of the tension that’s built up finally boils over giving way to an explosive finale which, whether pre-meditated or not, probably owes much to the late great Stanley Kubrick himself.

Whilst one could perhaps spot similarities between Legrand’s film and, most notably, Robert Benton’s 1979 classic Kramer vs Kramer – but also with Andrei Zvyagintsev’s unbearably bleak Loveless, and Joachim Lafosse’s After Love Custody approaches this harrowing subject matter from a slightly different angle.

It’s clear from the start that this is not just a troubled marriage but one that is irredeemably broken to the point of virtual loathing. Though, as so often can be the case, such a sentiment is not necessarily equally shared on both sides.

It is very clear however that both Miriam (Léa Drucker) and her two children, Julien (Thomas Gioria), and Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux), are all sick of the site of their husband and father, Antoine (Denis Ménochet). Each wishes dearly for him to play no further part in their lives citing as yet unsubstantiated accusations of Antoine’s physical violence against them as their primary motivating factor behind this decision. 

Despite clearly being persona non grata, Antoine has not however given up the fantasy of reuniting the family unit once again. But with no-one else buying into his vision and with his delusions being repeatedly crushed at every turn, this proud man is slowly but surely pushed to the very brink.

Custody is a film that never offers so much as the smallest island of respite from the pervading black cloud that hovers over the film’s protagonists. Even Josephine’s birthday celebration, despite the flowing alcohol and apparently jovial guests, has a suspenseful feel to it. It’s as though Miriam and her family unit is somehow on borrowed time, anticipating with dread the unwelcome yet almost inevitable spectre of Antoine to make a sudden appearance.

Legrand’s casting is strong with performances that are powerful yet nicely understated throughout. And there is a truly exceptional performance from young Thomas Giora, who displays huge emotional depth in his portrayal of Julien; one that defies his tender years.

Custody takes us to a dark, anxiety-inducing and at times troubling place. To some degree at least, it’s a film that can be deemed to be pretty hard work. Bear with it though, and the rewards for patience and an inquisitive mind are both ample and thoroughly worthwhile.

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LOVELESS (Nelyubov)

Four Star Rating

“…Alyosha (Matvey Novikov). A helpless pawn stuck in the middle, condemned to try and make some sense of the never ending spiteful bickering of the two people he most depends upon.” – Wayward Wolf.

Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Loveless starts as it means to go on. A sequence of stark lingering shots of a snow-covered unforgiving Russian winter.

These images are actually quite beautiful in isolation and arguably offer only a hint of the pervading mood of downbeat misery that is soon to follow.

Don’t be put-off however by such an apparently down-cast summary.

Zvyagintsev’s film is in fact a brilliantly observed study of the most negative aspects of a failed relationship, made all the more harrowing through the involvement of a child, the couple’s young son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov). A helpless pawn stuck in the middle, condemned to try and make some sense of the never ending spiteful bickering of the two people he most depends upon.

Alyosha’s parents – two fine performances full of conviction by Maryana Spivak (Zhenya), and Aleksey Rozin (Boris) – have both found new partners and long to bring the curtain down on their sorry, loveless marriage, and ‘start again’ – as it were. They have become two eminently unlikeable characters. Zhenya, an angry (primarily at herself), highly irritable individual obsessed with the comforting distraction of her mobile phone, and Boris, who whilst frequently drawn into exchanges of vitriol with his wife, is a somewhat withdrawn man, distancing himself as much as possible from any contact with either Zhenya or Alyosha. 

It’s a relentlessly toxic environment, made worse still by the parents’ apparent lack of concern as to the affects of their self-absorbed sniping, upon their young son.

Unusually for such a predicament as this, neither parent makes any attempt to curry favour with the child; quite the opposite in fact. The fight, it would seem, is for who’s not going to take custody. Alyosha is seen as an inconvenience, a mistake that never should have happened, and his parents have absolutely no qualms about voicing such hurtful opinions in full earshot of the distressed youngster.

It’s no wonder therefore that the day soon arrives when the young lad grabs his school bag and makes a bolt for the door, never to return. And such is the self-centred attitude of his parents, neither of them even notices this for almost two days.

But is this actually genuine neglect of an impressionable youngster, or more likely the inevitable comeuppance from their high-stakes psychological games?

Two films sprung to mind whilst watching Loveless: Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi’s 2015 Ukrainian film, The Tribe – a film similar in its mood and sense of helplessness that focuses on a run-down boarding school for the deaf in which harsh life lessons are dished out with depressing regularity. But perhaps of more direct relevance is Joachim Lafosse’s 2016 mournfully awkward relationship drama, After Love (L’Économie du couple), a film which whilst being almost exclusively – and excruciatingly for that matter – downbeat, does at least offer, for the most fleeting of moments, a rare olive branch of hope and potential redemption.

Zvyagintsev’s film on the other hand makes no such concessions. In fact, the Director seems determined to walk his audience, almost in real-time, through every last awkward moment of not only the couple’s frequent fights, but of their increasingly desperate and forlorn attempts to track down their absent son, whether that be through a vague lead offered up by Alyosha’s friend, or a visit to Zhenya’s appalling mother. “Stalin-in-a-skirt” indeed.

The outlook is grim, and there’s a lingering sense of just ‘knowing’ as rescue parties comb their way through surrounding woodland and derelict buildings, to no avail. All the while, the warring couple barely utter a word to one another. Certainly there’s no sense of galvanised togetherness, if only in the interests of the greater good.

Nothing.

Loveless is an open-ended, consistently powerful film with an underlying message suggesting that if we don’t address and learn from our own deficiencies, our troubles have a nasty habit of ultimately coming full circle.

It’s bleak, it’s brutal and it’s hard to watch, but it’s equally hard to ignore.