Partisan presents itself as Australian Ariel Kleiman’s feature-film directorial debut, though you wouldn’t realise it from the maturity displayed on screen. The narrative, rather than flimsily structured as some critics have purported, is sinisterly brooding and intentionally thin, giving the film a normality that adds effective contrast to the otherwise shocking subject matter. The subject matter in question revolves around Alexander, a misbehaving child played in a menacingly placid way by newcomer Jeremy Chabriel, and his unorthodox upbringing; trained to become a child assassin by his father, Gregori (Vincent Cassel), a deceivingly paternal figure with a strong partisan ideology.
The world is seen through Alexander’s eyes, and so many events are inevitably left to vague interpretation, a viewing experience that will frustrate those who prefer complete exposition. There is no background given to the story, or to the characters that are contained within the story. Even the location is ambiguous, the film taking place in an equivocal Eastern European nowhere-land (filmed in Georgia and Australia of all places), where the only prelude is an introduction to Gregori’s preparations, rather than the character itself. His motives are left unanswered, and we can only speculate and watch through Alexander’s eyes as he attempts to raise his growing collection of children to become savage tykes, It’s a brave, refreshing method of story-telling, and one that allows the viewer to develop their own inferences; motifs of inapposite fountains and protective earbuds lend clues to Partisan’s overarching themes, as do allusions to religious imagery of baptism and Gregori’s twisted views that bare similarity to Old Testament beliefs. If I’m sounding unsure, that’s because I am – a revisit to delve deeper into the film’s morals is a necessity.
On a more basic level, Partisan eases by with intrigue effectively maintained. The world-building is immediately captivating, and the story is developed at a pace that suppresses any temptation to reveal the film’s revelations too early. There’s an almost otherworldly, slightly mundane feel to the film that draws the viewer in – callous bombshells are juxtaposed almost immediately by stylistic karaoke – akin to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives – though made all the more unsettling due to the connotations of innocence that the children represent.
Sadly, this isn’t a theme explored enough in Partisan – the film is fairly distant in conveying any emotion felt towards the children. They’re raised and manipulated in a way that should seem sorrowful, but the film doesn’t probe deep enough into this topic, instead more interested in the face value of the events taking place. This disjointedness, or detachment from adversity is partly due to a script that is written in an occasionally stilted style. The film is understated in many respects, but its script is often wholly blunt and unnatural, where “show, don’t tell” is neglected. These moments are rare, but severely jarring, threatening to derail its intent of relaying information via the emotions of characters (close-ups of faces are used abundantly) and images of heavy symbolism.
Cassel executes Gregori with all the complexity he can muster, and manages to pose as a caring but unnerving figure incredibly well. He’s overshadowed, however, by Chabriel, who confidently plays Alexander as an enigmatic figure scarred by his upbringing. Without his coldly inquisitive, underplayed performance, the film would suffer greatly.
The film is bolstered by the talent of Oneohtrix Point Never’s emphatic, evocative score, connoting an epicosity and grandeur that does well to balance Partisan’s small-scale location. Though as far as small-scale films go, Kleiman thrives in presenting Partisan as having huge repercussions. The themes are ambiguous but not impenetrable, the pacing slow but never dull, and the final scene will linger on in an exceptionally powerful manner.
– Gus Edgar