Custody ⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Unrated: Adult situations and violence. In subtitled French. • Theater: Lagoon
This bleak and harsh divorce drama is a riveting portrait of a family in crisis, an emotionally brutal story that runs unceasingly from deeply unhappy to potentially fatal.
It opens like a dry documentary about the French divorce code. We watch as Miriam (Léa Drucker) and Antoine (Denis Ménochet) gather with their lawyers in a judge’s office, testify about the breakdown of their marriage and try to hammer out an agreement about the next steps.
But the conflict is deeper and darker than that family court battle royal. Director Xavier Legrand gives his characters strengths and shortcomings and more than superficial personalities. Miriam is a frequently unpleasant shrew with redeeming motherly qualities. Antoine is a beefy, tantrum-throwing security guard. Their teen daughter Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux) wants to get away from both as soon as possible. Her younger brother Julien (Thomas Gioria) doesn’t have that option. He becomes their go-between, keeping their secrets or passing messages between them as he’s ordered. His parents are hopeless cases, placing their values above the child’s.
Legrand strategically keeps his cards hidden, playing the game one troubling scene at a time until the stakes move beyond mutual disappointment to disgust and then to dread. He doesn’t attempt to draw a social context around this ongoing catastrophe, seeing it as a toxic hardship of the human condition.
All this harrowing bad fortune is wonderfully played. Drucker understands when it would be counterproductive to reveal Miriam’s contempt for her ex-husband, and lets us see her struggle to keep the feeling in check lest she set off his fearsome temper. As Antoine, Ménochet weeps to her repeatedly as he begs to be taken back, a man traumatized by the consequences of his actions yet unable to do anything right.
Puzzle ⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rated: R for language. • Theater: Uptown
This story about a puzzle prodigy doesn’t quite fit together. There is no deal-breaker of a mistake here, but more passion and creative spark would help it.
It has many good parts, beginning with its excellent international cast. Scotland’s Kelly Macdonald (unforgettably good in “No Country for Old Men”) is Agnes, a modest, unassuming housewife and church lady who discovers her talent of being able to assemble thousand-piece jigsaws at rocket speed. Indian superstar Irrfan Khan plays Robert, an isolated, affluent inventor with no need to work and not much else to do. He wants her to help him pass time as his championship gaming partner.
They get to know each other in practice sessions Agnes conceals from her husband, and Robert slyly hints that the mismatched teammates could become something more. But she’s a devout, commandment-following Catholic, so no way. Or possibly maybe. It’s all very understated, a soft-sell indie about imperfect relationships. The point of the story is whether that quirk that makes you special is the proper pathway to connect with somebody surprising. Because life is a puzzle, isn’t it?
Remade from a 2010 Argentine film, director Marc Turtletaub’s movie meanders from its low-key beginning to its bittersweet end with a hushed respect for the utterly nice characters. It’s a mild crowd pleaser for people who are exhausted by blockbusters.