For some reason I’ve found myself watching several films recently at the Filmhouse about dysfunctional families. At one end of the scale was Ladybird, a light-hearted take on a mother finding it hard to ‘let go’ of her near-adult daughter. At the opposite end was Loveless, a bleak portrayal of parents literally pushing their child away from them with their bitter wrangling.

Somewhere in between was a fly-on-the-wall documentary titled You Don’t Know How Much I Love You, which was pared down to the bare bones: a young-ish woman and her mother, in an attempt to reconcile their differences, attending joint therapy. Only at the end is it revealed that this was not an actual session. I felt a little cheated. But the truth acknowledged by the therapist rang true: relationships are a lifetime’s work.

Returning to the theme from my review of Loveless, that parents “f**k you up” (according to Philip Larkin) I went to see Custody, with a pretty clear idea of what I was in for. As an aside: I don’t read anything more than the blurb in the Filmhouse brochure before seeing a film, nor watch the trailer, nor read others critic’s reviews. But the title said enough, and the opening section quickly set the agenda.

Two parents are brought before what I guess we would call a Children’s Panel for ‘the law’ to decide what’s best for their children. A father wants access to his eleven year-old boy – there is also a daughter who is about to turn eighteen, so custody isn’t an issue – and the mother clearly doesn’t want this. It seems, from a statement, that the boy isn’t too keen either, although immediately the issue of emotional manipulation comes into question. From the outset, we don’t know quite what to think or believe.

Neither, for that matter, does the Magistrate. I want to say ‘Sheriff’ for the purposes of this website, but law doesn’t translate that easily. Family Law in France may be different, but what isn’t lost in translation is the painful decision that has to be made, based on the ‘truths’ purported by each parent. When the Magistrate says, “Which of you is the bigger liar?” to the parents, she is putting the question to the audience.

With cold calculation she brings the case to a close, and we have to wait a week to learn the outcome of the hearing. One comment demonstrates how delicate a decision this will be. When she observes that the children seem to be on the mother’s side, she adds the fatal caveat: “That’s unfortunate.” More unfortunate is that if I say another word about the legal decision made, I will spoil the plot. So I will leave a teaser.

Having been shown a glimpse of each parent, the focus homes in on the boy who is wracked in un-divulged pain. With intense close-up shots that must have taken hours to perfect, Julien (Thomas Gioria) appears to play not only on the audience heart-strings, but also on his father’s and mother’s. In custody battles, kids are pawns in the parents’ wars, but when it seems the kids are playing the parents against each other, the confusion is trebled.

This lack of clarity is the most frustrating thing about this film – although it makes perfect sense. When warring parents have to revert to the cold, hard rule of law, there is no guarantee that the right decision will be made. For this reason, the action is imbued with long sequences where nothing is spoken, and therefore, nothing resolved.

A depiction of the two children journeying to school presents a scenario that is never answered: the near-eighteen year-old takes a pregnancy test… who knows! At her eighteenth birthday party, all the dialogue between the mother and daughter is obliterated by the disco-music. When she is singing on stage (and the boy is enjoying her performance) she seems to be on the verge of tears, but we don’t know why.

The only clue is in her reaction to a text-message earlier in the evening, which sets nerves on end. Amid the ebullient joy of the celebration, the tension is portrayed menacingly. The confusion over whether the father has really ‘changed’ enters the final phase as the film itself morphs from realistic family drama to outright horror.

In a horrific climax between the parents, with the poor lad literally caught in the crossfire, we are finally forced to question the rule of the law. Even so, there is no answer as to what happens next; where the daughter went after her birthday party, or what the neighbour who watched the drama through her spyhole did the next day, or whether the boy sustained serious damage: we are not shown.

The only thing I was left wondering was whether, if the ‘story’ of this film was made into a documentary many years later about how much a parent loves their kids (and how they will never know) would I want to be a fly on that wall? Probably not.

For more on the programme at The Filmhouse click here.