Ariel Kleiman’s Partisan, co-written with Sarah Cyngler, was one of the most intriguing and well-executed features of Sundance 2015. A strange dystopian film grounded in a harsh realistic cult-environment, the film looks at the lengths one man goes to in order to exert control over his world.
Raised on the fringes of a dystopian slum, in the heart of a shut-in community, Alexander (Jeremy Chabriel) is the prize pupil of the enigmatic father-figure Gregori (Vincent Cassel), who has built a shut-away paradise. As Alexandre’s curiosity grows, his behaviour threatens to unravel a life-time of work and upset the delicate balance of power.
Kleiman is wise to keep us in the dark for the most part and not milk the most boisterously interesting parts of his story. This could easily have been a gimmicky tale about child assassins, garish and silly in its wild attempts to entertain. Instead it’s a perfectly orchestrated exploration of the parent/child relation that just happens to have one of the most impressively original and mysterious realities shrouding its narrative. A narrative we are left to construct through our interpretations of the bizarre perversions of the domestic ideal. A child knocking door to door with his schoolbag in his arms, a karaoke night, a chicken farm, every facet of this tightly conceived world is innocent in itself, yet charged with the potential to be threatening, even shocking, in its intended purpose.
The story is only as strong as its performances however, the key power-play at its heart being the real reason we are so enraptured in the world. For much of the film, a question of how hangs in the air, but as we fall under Gregori’s charm, see the extent of his manipulation, his world begins to make sense. Call it a cult, call it what you like, the film takes up a non-biased position, letting Alexander’s growth and subtle rebellion highlight the real commentary of the film, which is apparently inspired by the child soldiers of Columbia.
Partisan isn’t just a gorgeously constructed polemical discourse. Ambient scoring flows around the whole film, detaching us from preconceived notions of place and structure, the otherness of Gregori’s isolated polygamic community enforced, but rarely dropped into foreboding territory. This is an idyllic- if mindboggling- place where aggression and cruelty are nowhere to be seen, the mothers- like the children- are content to live in the apparent safety of this gorgeously actualised place. Production design is a key element, the look of the crumbling fortress argues a kind of basic utility glazed with the superficial concepts of the home environment. In Partisan, Gregorie’s home is as important as the characters who live there.
Behind Partisan’s slum-like paradise hides a heart of darkness: fabrications and power-play keep a tightly wound hierarchy in place until we slowly learn that the sociable veneer of this make-believe town is as questionable as it looks. A brutal realism rears its head at choice moments reminding us that this is a film about brain-washing and murder, hidden as well as Gregori’s fierce temper. Without Cassel’s effortless charisma and Chabriel’s endearing curiosity there would be no film, yet the young star in particular does a Hell of a job at leading this strange and beautiful film.
By the time its characters have reached a bridging point, we have seen enough to know that this is a bold and unsettling feature. Partisan crafts a stunning world through gorgeous scoring, stark production design, and two stellar leads. Enigmatic thriller via coming-of-age story.
Dir: Ariel Kleiman
Stars: Jeremy Chabriel, Vincent Cassel, Florence Mezzara