This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Karlovy Vary Film Festival.
Like a stone skimming across the surface of a lake of unknowable depth, a beautiful line of inference and connection exists across the enigmatic expanse of Ariel Kleiman‘s inexplicable yet involving “Partisan.” The involuntary flexing of an aching hand cuts back to a man with a bandaged knuckle which then infers (perhaps erroneously) a connection to the bruises that blossom on a woman’s face. She is in a maternity ward and suddenly we are at a birthday party and the child is now a boy; the man a paternal figure, if not his father. The boy is surrounded by children of both sexes, but, aside from that man, all the other grownups are women. In such quick, quiet moves we are dropped into the world of “Partisan,” a film which expects something of the viewer — indeed it is unusual to encounter a story, let alone a feature debut, that withholds so much — but one that trusts its audience to find its way, led by an elegant breadcrumb trail of clues, to its heart of darkness.
Making good on a sneaking suspicion that many attentive cinemagoers have had for a long time — namely that Vincent Cassel‘s face is one that could perhaps inspire a doomsday cult — it is centered around two charismatic and perfectly modulated performances. One is from Cassel, whose quicksilver ability to oscillate in mood between charmingly sentimental and viciously choleric has maybe never been better mined than in his role as Grigori, the leader and lone male adult in this odd, cloistered community. (He so suits the part that it’s hard to believe he was a last-minute choice after Oscar Isaac, who had been attached to star, dropped out). The other is from the boy, Alexander, played by newcomer Jeremy Chabriel, Grigori’s surrogate son and most devoted disciple, who has only ever defied Grigori’s authority thus far in simple, childish ways: climbing down drainpipes to play football with his friends; smuggling in trinkets from the world outside. Amid a well-shot film (by DP Germain McMicking) Chabriel’s clear-eyed gaze, in which adoration of Grigori is gradually replaced by suspicion and finally blank hostility, is the film’s most evocative image.
It gradually, elliptically becomes clear that Grigori’s urban fortress, of padlocked hidden entrances and concrete passageways, is a kind of commune, in which strict rules are laid down by him supposedly for the good of all its members. The women, who live in apartments round the courtyard with their children, seem content to share Grigori’s affections between them, and have formed a community and a support system of their own; it is hinted that most of them have come to escape domestic abuse elsewhere. For some time, a mood of foreboding exists despite the banality of the proceedings we observe — karaoke night as a reward for good behavior, a gardening class, a morning roughhousing session between Grigori and the jumble of kids who clearly all adore him. But that foreboding, enhanced by Daniel Lopatin‘s moody score of uneasy drones and by off-kilter moments like an arcane roleplay masquerading as a game of paintball, soon comes to a head. Alexander races into the bleak world outside on a motorbike with a friend, knocks on a door, asks for confirmation of a man’s name and the promptly shoots him dead, like it ain’t no thing.
The kids are being raised to be killers, and Grigori finances his whole operation by the contract murders that his indoctrinated children fulfill. But in this Fagin-archetype persona, his venality is tempered by a genuine, if horribly warped affection for the kids, and a sincere, almost fanatically messianic belief that he has rescued them from the terrors of the world outside. A symptom of extreme class rage, Grigori is the most dangerous and seductive type of criminal — an ideologue.
What precisely are the circumstances of the societal collapse outside, Kleiman never makes exactly clear, or even whether that collapse has really occurred or if it’s simply Grigori’s paranoiac exaggeration of the poverty-bred desperation and extreme economic hardship that is endemic right now in less developed parts of the world. So initially, the use of real-world locations (the exteriors were shot amid the abandoned-looking Eastern European tower block architecture of suburban Georgia) is disconcerting, as is the fact that everyone speaks in differently accented English — you spend time wondering where exactly, and when exactly, the film takes place. But that is a secret Kleiman keeps close to his chest, and soon it becomes clear that the film’s strengths as a “Lord of the Flies“-style parable and a distinctly Oedipal tragedy become more apparent when unmoored from a real time and place.
If three is a trend, then we have an international arthouse trend on our hands, with powerfully shot, willfully enigmatic, meticulous examinations of the mechanics of paranoia and the survival instinct in the face of an undefined, enveloping darkness. Yes, its a pretty specific trend. But after “History of Fear” (review here) and “Parabellum,” (review here) both of which were modestly well-received festival titles, “Partisan,” might be its culmination so far — it is slow and it is ambiguous but it is supremely sure of itself, as it moves, with singleminded grace from chilly to all-out chilling. [B]