Verdict: A compelling expression of controlled rage at tyrannical abuse of power and corruption of innocents.
This audaciously impressive off-the-edge feature film debut from Australian director Ariel Kleiman drops the viewer smack into the perplexing insular world of a weird, dilapidated hidden commune. No clue is given to its location, and to add to the sense of geographical confusion, the characters speak with a mix of accents, predominantly French. The place has the appearance of an abandoned apartment complex. It is cut off from the outside world, access being via a series of concrete tunnels and shafts with secret entrances unconvincingly camouflaged. In the distance is a shitty-looking town, basically a gathering of grim high-rise apartment blocks. It’s a strange, logic-defying, disorientating set-up, post-apocalyptic in feel, and never explained.
With exposition kept to a minimum throughout, we learn via the natural unfolding of events that the patriarch of the commune, Gregori (Vincent Cassel), leads a commune of mothers he has recruited from oppressed, miserable lives. He has raised their children as his own virtually from birth, moulding them in service of his utopian vision, which is not elaborated upon. Some might find this avoidance of ideological detail frustrating, but in effect, Kleiman is shrewdly refusing to be pinned down by any real-world allusion; he is depicting an everyman cultist micro-society. The point is that regardless of the brand of “utopia”, all cultist organisations normalise the abnormal, working through a power structure that assigns the leader God-like status while necessarily subjugating his/her followers, and demonising all challengers (including, of course, the entire world outside the cult).
Thus, Gregori casts all outsiders as evil threats to the sanctuary of the commune. He teaches the kids to read and write, grow their own vegetables, raise poultry – and assassinate nominated targets in the nearby town for reasons that are not divulged.
The star assassin is Gregori’s favourite “son”, Alexander (played by Jeremy Chabriel, who puts in an arresting performance). About eleven years of age, he carries out his murderous missions with chilling efficiency, unaffected emotionally, unquestioning of Gregori’s orders… until something happens that undermines his trust and resurrects the compassion that has been conditioned out of him. Blind faith turns to doubt, and Alexander begins to challenge Gregori’s authority. The stage is set for a once-impossible showdown that can have only one winner – and that features a stunning and profoundly articulate image of Alexander brandishing a gun while holding his baby half-brother, whom he has fitted with ear protection (there is genius in that detail).
Partisan works as a tense, whacked out thriller, but it is more than that. It is a compelling expression of controlled rage at the tyrannical abuse of power and corruption of innocents that is at the core of any and every tyrant-led organisation, whether that be a family with a despot at its head, a criminal organisation, a religious order, a totalitarian state, or terrorist scourges like ISIS. Mark down Ariel Kleiman as a writer/director to watch. He’s an exciting prospect.
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