The community at the centre of Ariel Kleiman’s Partisan is introduced with rare restraint and precision. After a short prologue, we are deposited into a secluded society, buried within sheltering slabs of through which thin rays of sunlight shine. The society (described in most reviews as a ‘cult’, though I’d argue that’s an overly simplistic categorisation) is composed of a dozen or so children, their mothers and patriarch Gregori (Vincent Cassel).
Gregori is a benevolent dictator, softly-spoken and casually charismatic. Kleiman, demonstrating remarkable craft and confidence directing his debut feature film, deliberately eschews the kind of mollycoddling over-exposition that many of his contemporaries rely upon (on more than one occasion we cut away from dialogue that would’ve clarified matters). But through careful visual storytelling we are given to understand that this community exists on the fringes of a decrepit urban ruin – either a post-Soviet city or a post-apocalyptic wasteland. We begin to realise that there is a sinister edge to their day-to-day life, as we learn that the children’s schooling includes gunplay alongside English and electronics.
Partisan is at its strongest as it unfolds its unique ecosystem; there’s an ethereal sense of enigma hanging over the proceedings that gradually – inevitably – evaporates. The film takes place over one year, bookended by the eleventh and twelfth birthday parties of Alexander (Jeremy Chabriel), the oldest child in the community. As the year progresses, the narrative’s possibilities narrow, and ultimately focuses on the developing conflict between Alexander and Gregori.
The decision is understandable. It’s thoughtfully written and executed. Alexander’s faith in Gregori’s community is weakened after Alexander dabbles in capitalism – and chocolate – outside the wall, and these stresses are exacerbated by the introduction of a young outsider, Leo (Alex Balaganskiy). Leo is intelligent, artistic, flagrantly contrarian, and his opposition to Gregori leads Alexander inexorably down the same path. But while the story is well told, the sense of potential, the sense of exploration promised in the film’s earliest frames, has been snuffed out.
There’s an allegorical framework here, but a familiar one – that of life (and, perhaps, revolution) within a totalitarian society (I was reminded of Animal Farm on more than one occasion). We sidestep the emotional reality of how life in this society unfolds to consider a familiar and familial conflict – between a young man and his authoritarian father figure. I love the ambiguity in the specifics of the world – is it a post-apocalyptic dystopia, or simply a poverty-stricken country in the modern day? Is Gregori’s leadership based on religious ideology, a simple cult of personality …or something else? These questions do not require answers, but questions about the motivations of the women – or the lives of the children other than Alexander – sadly go unanswered.
Nonetheless, Partisan is a superlative debut feature. Kleiman demonstrates a real sense of how to compose meaningful shots that further the narrative, explore the characters and capture your attention without ever feeling showy. Simple symbols – children, chicken, chains – are woven through the film in a way that enriches without distracting. Equally impressive are the performances of Cassel – superb, deeply human – and, to an understandably lesser extent, Chabriel. The score – from Daniel Lopatin aka Oneohtrix Point Never – is sublime, creating an insidious, unnerving mood and being beautiful besides. While Partisan never quite achieves its potential, it’s a good film that promises greatness from Kleiman in the future – I eagerly anticipate his follow-up.