An Unaccustomed Custom

The Royal Court’s not the only artistic entity that’s recently investigated the devastating consequences wrought from insidious toxic masculinity.

In fact, the subject’s by no means exclusive to only one art form.

The new Danish film Custody wrestles with the same ideas as the aforementioned British theatre, taking an approach that splits the difference between the two plays the Royal Court imported across the Atlantic to New York this summer.

Like David Ireland’s Cyprus Avenue, Custody aims its camera at probing the male psychology directly, not conforming to Dennis Kelly’s Girls & Boys’ focus on the first gender listed in the title. But whereas Ireland’s text lays out its lead’s abhorrent beliefs from the start, revealing the pointlessness of attempting to find the sense within such senselessness, Xavier Legrand’s screenplay (he also directs), much like Kelly’s play, deliberately keeps the viewer in the dark regarding the monster’s ultimate monstrousness. Taking another page out of Girls & Boys book, Custody at first conceals this depravity to emphasize not only its insidious nature, but also how easily such masked, rotten interiority can rear its destructive head in our external world.

All three rope-a-dope the audience, making for an intentionally jarring experience that’s anything but conventionally enjoyable. Given the subject matter, can you blame them?

Custody begins in divorce court. It’s a familiar set-up: the husband wants joint custody; the wife wants sole custody. She claims he’s a poisonous influence on her children; he claims she’s lying to ostracize him from her life altogether. It’s a classic he-said, she-said. The judge presiding over the case serves as a sort of stand-in for us; she’s privy to the same information, and must decide who to trust.

We, as reasonable, level-headed, empathetic observers who’ve learned not to jump to hasty conclusions, who should always grant the benefit of the doubt, who obviously believe in the sanctity of the family, in turn stand-in for all of society; our preliminary thoughts on this marriage both reflect and are a product of patriarchal teaching. What about the letter her lawyer reads, supposedly written by their offspring, in which they assert they want no part of their father? Could she have manipulated their perception to fulfill her own agenda? Kids need their Dad, after all!

The discourse of course leads to no concrete resolutions. We’re left wondering who’s telling more of the truth, and this pondering continues for the remainder of Custody’s duration. It’s a testament to Denis Ménochet’s silent, steely resolve as the excommunicated father that such a dilemma can be stretched out over 90 minutes.

And yet, for all that time, something just seems…off. You may blame the movie for such unease; it tantalizes in providing few enlightening details. Instead of offering a conclusive backstory or depicting behaviors that neatly classify him as a bad guy, we’re left to our own devices to unpack his moral character. How much can we damn parenting from afar? Where’s the line between an average caregiver and a perfunctory caretaker who actively, even recklessly, doesn’t give a fuck?

His actions walk this critical tightrope. Even when he errs, the extremity of his family’s subsequent lashing out feels more overblown than the offense warrants. Are they just treating him like shit, or is he truly a shitty guy? Are they refusing to forgive, unable to acknowledge the possibility of progress? Or do they know what he’s capable of, and no trust can overcome his past deeds? Who are we to believe? By forcing us to stick by Ménochet’s side, we find ourselves drawn to taking his side (or, at least this dude did). We cling to the good and block out the bad, hoping our positive, optimistic worldview will be confirmed.

And yet, when the shit violently hits the fan, we have no one to blame but ourselves for misreading the signs. This bait-and-switch deftly conveys the pervasive harm of unconscious bias. Custody’s structure perpetuates the dominant narrative; we’re evaluating a family’s story through the eyes of a man. And generations of art made by, for, and about men have brainwashed so many of us to strive to find the complexity in the horrific; we blind ourselves to the tragedy of reality right before us, literally staring us in the face.

But such is the plight of a communal society; we’re obligated to watch out for each other, and yet we’re stuck watching from afar, unable to see the full picture. The last shot gut-wrenchingly captures this cold, hard fact. The neighbor who saves the family from the father’s wrath looks through her door and down the hall at the traumatized, recovering kin. Yet again, the immediate futures of innocents will be robbed of peace of mind by the insecurity of weak men unable to face their lack of control over what they consider to be their dominion. The neighbor closes her door on the family, the movie fades to black, and we realize again the limitations of our own perspectives.

Yes, the neighbor saved the day, but only because she literally heard gunshots. Short of such an obvious indicator, can we truly know enough to help those around us?

We can try. We must stay attuned to our surroundings, because healthy society necessities the sort of close study demanded by Custody. And it’s not even that hard, as long as we’re not interpreting the world through a lens clouded with the toxic masculinity of the patriarchy. We must root out such influences, by deconstructing this deeply embedded world order.

Custody, Cyprus Avenue, and Girls & Boys are steps in the right direction.

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