Dir: Ariel Kleiman
When film makers make a pitch to the studio executives, old clichés are often used to describe what the intended film will be like: “It’s a coming of age tale set in a utopian community where a young man begins to suspect the leader is not a paragon of virtue.” Partisan could have been pitched that way. In some ways it’s a version of a much told tale: a cult member begins to realise there might be some attraction in a wider world view. Partisan takes this idea and spins it on its head.
Set in an unnamed city clearly the worse for wear, we meet Gregori (Vincent Kassel) as he visits a maternity ward looking for vulnerable new mothers. Soon a small community is recruited in a kind of compound in a remote part of the city. We follow the path of 11 year old Aleksander (Jeremy Chabriel) and see a happy existence involving laughter and harmony. It is only gradually that the viewer begins to realise the purpose of this community: the children are being trained with weapons for specific purposes in the run-down city.
The nature of Kleiman’s storytelling means that such a synopsis does not do justice. We see this story unfold and make sense of the commune though Aleksander’s eyes, so that questions an adult might ask: for instance, why the ladies are content to be a part of this community, are never asked. In that way, such compliance becomes even more intriguing. That Aleksander’s gradual doubt about Gregori is not based on the violence he is regularly asked to commit but founded on more mundane issues might puzzle but is true to the arc of the story. This is about parenting and trust more than anything else.
The production design by co-scripter Sarah Cyngler is terrific. The shooting location in Mount Eliza, Victoria is absolutely undetectable and fully resembles a more war-torn European location. But it is Kleiman’s subtle direction and the central performances of Kassell and the mature Chabriel that take this film notches above. The shift from paradise to a sense of creeping dread that all might not be as it seems is gradual. Once it sets in, the viewer realises that other clues had been given. Kassel is always wonderful and he brings depth beyond the text of the script. The final shot will linger with the viewer long after the lights in the cinema come on.