The creepy micro-universe of Partisan is a closed compound on the outskirts of a dilapidated town. It’s presided over by a cult leader played with chain-smoking intensity by Vincent Cassel, who is surrogate sire and svengali to a brood of fledgling child assassins. But while the systematic corruption of innocents under an outwardly benevolent protector makes for a disturbing scenario, Australian newcomer Ariel Kleiman dulls the unease with his studiedly enigmatic approach.
There’s no shortage of gritty visual command here, plus a convincing depiction of a dehumanized, geographically non-specific world and a secluded haven that’s part retreat, part prison. And in French newcomer Jeremy Chabriel as 11-year-old Alexander, with his feline blue-green eyes and piercing, emotionless gaze, the film has a young protagonist who is every inch a match for Cassel’s perfidiously charismatic Gregori.
Why, then, is Partisan an only intermittently involving slog? It could be the self-importance of Daniel Lopatin‘s score, with its insistently ominous drone and choral solemnity. But more likely it’s Kleiman’s intoxication with his film’s brooding atmosphere; the director appears reluctant to get out of his own way long enough to do something so pedestrian as tell an actual story.
The film inevitably will draw comparison with Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos‘ Dogtooth, an equally opaque though arresting puzzler about parents who confine their children to a walled sanctuary, conditioning them against the presumed iniquities of the outside world.
Kleiman and his co-writer Sarah Cyngler keep exposition to a mininum, but we witness Gregori approaching the hospital bed of Susanna (Florence Mezzara) with kind words and seductive behavior, soon after she has given birth to a son, Alexander. Eleven years later, that boy is the eldest of many children living in a warren-like bunker with a courtyard, accessible from outside only by tunnels and a locked gate.
It’s assumed that the other mothers in the commune, like Susanna, were alone and vulnerable, brought into the fold in similar ways. Gregori is the sole adult male. While Alexander is considered special by virtue of being the first, Gregori’s paternal affection for all the children appears equal. However, a contest for his approval is measured in gold stars on a merit board and in the honor of being chosen to perform on karaoke nights.
The education of these children ranges from gardening to games; they are taught the values of trustworthiness and of abiding by rules, which are necessary to separate them from the lawlessness and danger that supposedly lie beyond their walls. More chillingly, they are trained to kill using instruments of play such as dart blasters, paintball guns and balloons.
Alexander is the most skilled at putting those lessons into practice during missions outside the compound to eliminate chosen victims. But the who or why of those targets is never disclosed. Nobody among the mothers or children questions the killings, which are treated as a task like any other.
Conventional narrative detail is certainly not a requirement, and many directors can sustain a movie based on little more than suggestion and mood. But Partisan begins to feel like a short film treatment stretched beyond its limits.
Some much-needed conflict is introduced when Gregori returns one day from an excursion with a damaged young mother (Rosa Voto), her newborn baby and her son Leo (Alex Balaganskiy), who is roughly Alexander’s age. Unschooled in the commune’s laws of obedience, Leo reacts adversely to the slaughter of a chicken in the courtyard and is ostracized for his outspokenness when he challenges Gregori’s authority.
Alexander is shocked at first by this rebellious display, but his own doubts have long been quietly festering and he soon begins to question the absolutism of Gregori’s teachings. Urged by his anxious mother not to make waves, he continues to perform his assigned duties, including another assassination. But his escalating defiance leads to a confrontation with irrevocable consequences.
It would be tempting to read all this as an allegory for any kind of extreme isolationist group dedicated to the elimination of non-adherents — except that there’s no evidence in the film of either opposing beliefs or hostile threats from outside. The recruitment of children as assassins also has potential parallels around the globe, from Colombia to the Middle East, Myanmar to the Congo.
But it appears that Kleiman and Cyngler favor ambiguity over anything approaching sociopolitical context, even obliquely. (The film’s interiors were shot in Australia, with exteriors in Georgia, and the cast’s mishmash of accents vaguely suggests Eastern Europe.)
Partisan points to nothing more than a man with a vengeful grievance against the world and an ill-defined messiah complex, using his powers of persuasion over the weak and impressionable to recruit a personal army. Why, is anyone’s guess. Cassel’s measured performance keeps the malevolence mostly under the surface. But Gregori is just not an intriguing enough central character to make this extended exercise in dour artiness more than mildly effective.
Production company: Warp Films Australia, in association with Protagonist Pictures, Animal Kingdom
Cast: Vincent Cassel, Jeremy Chabriel, Florence Mezzara, Alex Balaganskiy, Rosa Voto, Frank Moylan
Director: Ariel Kleiman
Screenwriters: Ariel Kleiman, Sarah Cyngler
Producers: Sarah Shaw, Anna McLeish
Executive producers: Frederick W. Green, Joshua Astrachan, David Kaplan
Director of photography: Germain McMicking
Production designer: Steven Jones-Evans, Sarah Cyngler
Costume designer: Maria Pattison, Sarah Cyngler
Music: Daniel Lopatin
Editors: Jack Hutchings, Chris Wyatt
Casting: Allison Meadows
No rating, 98 minutes.