June 2015


‘Partisan’ directed by Ariel Kleiman

By Harry Windsor
Madman Films

For a country of wide open spaces, Australia produces a staggering number of films about suffocating claustrophobia. Our specialty is the domestic nightmare, as in Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown (2011), which sees a young pup held in thrall by a father figure of dubious motivation. This set-up gets hauled out again in Partisan, but young Melbourne director Ariel Kleiman’s debut feature offers a variation on the theme.

Starring French actor Vincent Cassel and set in an unnamed Eastern European city – all tattered gray apartment blocks and littered lumps of basalt – Partisan initially seems only nominally Australian. Cassel plays Gregori, background unknown, first seen visiting a battered woman and her baby in hospital. A decade later that child is now a boy (Jeremy Chabriel) who lives with his mother and Gregori in the bowels of the city, accessible through a padlocked drain. Several other children and their mothers live under the same roof, and Gregori runs a lucrative sideline sending his horde of prepubescents into the outside world to assassinate designated targets. Chabriel’s Alexander, with the sweetest of smiles, is the stable’s star.

Kleiman’s film recalls Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), whose portrait of a Manson-like collective on a bucolic farm in upstate New York was disturbing precisely because the cult’s evolution seemed so credible. But Partisan finds itself in an awkward netherworld: neither fantastic enough for us to happily suspend our disbelief nor recognisable enough to exert a grip. The accoutrements of the Australian summer – the pastel shirts, the Speedos, the inflatable pools, not to mention the accents – feel odd plonked down in the middle of the Caucasus.

Soon Gregori brings home new recruits, including a sullen boy of Alexander’s age. Before too long the kid is tartly correcting Gregori on the finer points of cultivating a winter garden, and the sense of shock on the older man’s face is plain. It’s the look of somebody who hasn’t had to justify himself in years.

While Cassel is as distinctive as ever, it’s Chabriel you remember. In the film’s most powerful scene, Germain McMicking’s camera stays on Alexander’s face as Gregori delivers yet another monologue about the importance of family, and we see it dawn on the boy that his father is lying. Alexander’s face remains immobile, but his eyes fill with tears.

Gregori’s avuncular persona shades into anger but his desperation to retain the undiluted love of Alexander gives the boy the upper hand, and this is the rare Australian film in which the relationship between father figure and son isn’t irrevocably one-sided. As toxic surrogate fathers go, Gregori is of the more benevolent variety, and Partisan floats the impolitic idea that, in the end, it proves to be his undoing.

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a Sydney-based writer.

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