Ariel Kleiman’s debut feature, Partisan (2014), a portrait of a commune living under the influence of a lone male figurehead, Gregori (brilliantly portrayed by Vincent Cassel), maintains a convincingly bleak tone but lacks a more defining, narrative substance. Gregori seems a personable leader and calming influence on his community of women and their children. An instructive father and dispenser of pearls of wisdom, he may be, but furtively he is also moulding and altering the psychology of the older boys, in particular, in sinister and disturbing ways.

Much of his focus is on son Alexander (the impressively clear-eyed, stone-faced Jeremy Chabriel), who begins to take on a more important role in acting out Gregori’s unspecified rage against those living the illusion of ‘normality’ beyond their own. The world in which this community exists is given little context. Is it the past, the future? Impossible to glean from the isolation in which they live, and this undoubtedly allows Kleiman and co-writer Sarah Cyngler a lot of freedom from dealing with potential real-world consequences. These people exist in a bubble, in other words, well apart from any accountability.

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Partisan, beyond the subtly charismatic performance of Cassel, is the choice of locations. It’s remarkable to think of some of these places as being Australian; the few wider, broader shots give the strong impression of a burnt-out, post-war Eastern European city sheeted in layers of bleak decay. At the other end of the scale, the plotting is so subdued that is never catches fire despite some evocative, expertly executed individual scenes.

So much of the burden of the film is carried by Cassel and our faith in bold presumptions as to where this often infuriatingly low-key drama might be headed. Then there’s the community of women, all of whom are beholden to Gregori, who are so fragmentarily depicted, meaning that they never register in any plausible way. The strange mix of European accents only confuses matters. I’d still rate Partisan as a work of great promise despite its obvious shortcomings. Kleiman displays a keen sense of tone and real skill in his handling of young actors, but just comes up short in a stricter storytelling sense.

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