In the opening shot of Ariel Kleiman’s PARTISAN a faceless man is seen on the outskirts of a decimated town. Like Christ, he is seen carrying a cross of wires and wood. In the next scene, the man (still unknown) is seen shirtless and completing a long table in a crumbling industrial space. It is as if he is preparing for the return of his family. Then, we are introduced to Gregori.
To say that PARTISAN is a story about a man who has created a cult would be merely to see the surface of Kleiman and Sarah Cyngler’s story. At its core, it is a story of survival. From the beginning, Gregori (Vincent Cassel) approaches women, newly mothers, who obviously have faced the darker side of humanity. They are looking for a world to escape from, and Gregori offers a solution. This is how his family of women and children begin to grow over the next several years, creating both a community and a shelter away from the realities of the world. This community involves sustainable living, homeschooling, karaoke nights, awkward pool parties, and the inevitable assassin training. All through the eyes of the unsuspecting children and under the umbrella of Gregori.
Though, this story transitions away from merely a tale of Gregori’s influence to that of Alexander (played delicately by first-time actor Jeremy Chabriel), a youth who begins to stray from the suspicious embrace of Gregori. One of the best and brightest (as well as the eldest), Alexander, like many teens, begins to rebel against his “father” and question the need to carry out their murderous missions within the real world. That is where PARTISAN begins to find its stride. The balance between Cassel’s Gregori and Chabriel’s Alexander is electrifying. Through little dialog and more visual storytelling, Kleiman builds a divide between these two dynamic characters. In a short 90 minutes, we witness the growth of Alexander from student to leader.
PARTISAN is a beautiful movie. Cinematically, it captures the visuals and brutality of a world torn apart. By what, we do not know. Kleiman specifically kept the location unknown (despite the accents) to allow the story to be more about the central characters, but for me, it only fueled the fire obviously felt within Alexander. What was outside these walls? Why did the city resemble a war torn area? Who were those caught under the thumb of Gregori and ultimately caught the wrath of the children? Why did these children have to fight? Typically questions like this muddy a film, but for PARTISAN, it added excitement to the mythology.
A wild idea caught me that perhaps this was an apocalyptic tale, perhaps set in the future, but then the scene in which Alexander purchases hamburger for his mother felt like those within the cities walls knew this child, and the power he wields, which again, added a new layer of mythos to this film. What intrigued me about PARTISAN is that it built the walls of safety around the commune, not the city. In other “cult” films the protagonist tries to escape the harsh reality of their life, but in Kleiman’s world, the commune provides stronger support, ultimately always making me, the audience, feel comforted when the kids returned to Gregori. There was a decision to make both the inside and the outside feel fearful in different ways, making Alexander’s final act a decision between safety and power.
Thus, leading to the question of the unanswered ending, what was Alexander’s final motive with his dynamic finale with Gregori? Was it power, to control the world Gregori had built, or was it safety, to bring peace to a community fraught with fear? This is an interesting question due to the observation made earlier. Despite one instance with an unaccepting child, Gregori never seemed to be an enemy surrounded by walls. Yes, what he was teaching may have been perceived as violence, but it may have also been protection. Does Alexander make a transformation, rebel against his father, or merely become the next king of this decimated palace? A world of conversation could be cultivated from merely this final, powerful scene.
Yet, despite the beauty and the chemistry between the actors, it was the tedious nature of what Gregori had created that captivated me, yet also demonstrated its painful flaws. PARTISAN is a slow moving film despite the highlights of music or of toddlers following a script for murder. It is trapped, between both the walls of the commune as well as the walls of the city. Perhaps this was intentional to help feel the walls forcing inward on Alexander, but as I continued to witness the repeating of gatherings, the blue backpacks, the trips into the “real world”, I found myself drained of the story and more invigorated by performances.