Director: Ariel Kleiman
Major Players: Vincent Cassel, Jeremy Chabriel
Out Of Five: 3.5
My first film of 2016 treads similar ground to my last one from 2015, yet it portrays that territory in a very different way. In The Wolfpack, we witnessed six brothers finding a way out of the confines of their New York apartment. In Partisan, we watch a group of children growing up in a sheltered community, cut off from the outside world, but this time it’s a drama. One with sinister implications.
Dominated by the charismatic Gregori (Vincent Cassel), the commune comprises women and children. It’s his idea of Utopia, protecting the children from the evils of the outside world, but the oldest child Alexander (Jeremy Chabriel) begins to think for himself and rebel against Gregori’s rule. The cracks in the community’s structure begin to show and it can only lead to a head to head confrontation between the two.
Gregori is also responsible for the children’s education. It’s not a conventional one, as you’d expect, with a curriculum that includes gardening, science and assassination. And the latter is put into practice when they are sent out on their own missions into the outside world and rewarded accordingly.
Australian director Ariel Kleiman was reportedly inspired to make the film by hearing about child soldiers in South America but he’s merged perhaps the most shocking aspect of the story with an allegory about dictatorship. When nobody challenges his ideas and opinions, Gregori is happy: the women never question his rules and the children just want to please him. But he doesn’t reckon on the youngsters becoming curious about the outside world and thinking for themselves, which is exactly what eventually happens: first there’s the young Leo (Alex Balaganskiy), who just sees the world through different eyes and then comes Alexander, whose rebellion is quieter, but more determined and infinitely more dangerous. People will always think for themselves, no matter how strictly their external lives are controlled.
Kleiman has also constructed an atmospheric film, one full of foreboding right from the opening scenes, even when Gregori visits the baby Alexander in hospital after his birth. And part of that is down to Cassel’s performance: menace and violence are never far from the surface, but they’re ever present in his eyes. An all-pervasive feeling of ambiguity adds to it: the outside world looks vaguely post-apocalyptic, but not to the extent that shops, garages and train don’t function. The way the film uses sound is the finishing touch: there’s little or no soundtrack and we’re not allowed to hear the dialogue in some crucial scenes – windows and the like get in the way. And when Alexander goes on his missions, the sound afterwards is muffled: it’s what he would hear because of wearing ear-plugs.
Both Partisan and The Wolfpack paint a gloomy portrait of communal living, especially when children are kept away from the world. It’s not an unfamiliar story, but Kleiman has made his film the decidedly more sinister of the two, as well as giving it a political angle. But it’s the atmosphere that gets to you, as does the film’s final scene: from being deprived of sound for some of the scenes, we’re now prevented from seeing a crucial object until the very last frame. And, in that sense, we’re being controlled as well.
Partisan is released in cinemas on Friday, 8 January and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 7 January.