Director: Ariel Kleiman
15 | 1h 34min | Drama, Thriller | 8 January 2016 (UK)
Director Ariel Kleiman’s strange but entertaining drama plays like a kind of cross between Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth and Joe Wright’s child assassin drama Hanna, with its story being set in a weird commune in an unnamed location and time period, where a group of young children and women live under the command of the charismatic guru/commando figure of Gregori, played here with suitable creepiness by Vincent Kassel. For mysterious reasons, Gregori is grooming these naive children into a generation of skilled assassins, using the tools of the schoolroom – balloons, air pistols and colourful rucksacks – to inculcate in them a killer instinct. As with Lanthimos’s film, the appeal here is to the chance to observe how power, control, language and behaviour function and shift in this upside-down, hermetic environment. And as with Wright’s Hanna, we are encourage to see how children, through more innocent eyes, can rationalise acts of brutality but also start to challenge the kill-or-be-killed worldview inculcated in them as they come of age.
Cassel is quite effective as Gregori, he is certainly not an actor who finds it hard to embody unsettling characters. Gregori, despite his shiny eyes and rictus-like grin, doesn’t quite have the poise of John Hawke’s American cult leader from Martha Marcy May Marlene though, as he is instead given to falling into bouts of seething frustration and pleading whenever one of the children defies him and his aura of majestic rule risks being punctured. And defiance is on the cards in this story, as one child in particular – the curious pre-teen Alexander (played by actor Jeremy Chabriel) – is starting to display too much interest in the outside world. Whether it is bringing back trinkets from the outside or carrying out random acts of charity for his mother (or the woman who appears to be his mother, there are several women in Gregori’s commune, which also raises the spectre of this being a harem) Alexander seems set on the well-trodden path of chafing against the primary authority figure.
Kleiman keeps the backstory and functioning of this secluded commune interestingly ambiguous at first. We are given no introductory text or exposition to help us situate this little island in either a time or a place. The flashes of the outside world we get suggest it could be rural France, but the exact geography of the commune is unclear: Alexander and others are only seen accessing it via a tunnel fronted by an ivy-covered gate, which leads to a square bordered on all sides by walls and windows that deny us a clear view of the outside. The impressive (for its budget) production design effectively brings out the bizarre juxtaposition inherent in this place: the hideaway nature of the commune and the accoutrements of a childhood playground that are dotted around it (hand paintings, crayons marks and even gold stars stuck on achievement charts) make it seem like a kind of idealised NeverNever Land that any pre-teen would want to scamper about in, but the run-down, rubble-strewn nature of the facilities and the presence of military kit also give it the flavour of a post-apocalyptic bunker.
Of course, the real villainous aspect of Grigori is not just that he is using these children to kill off various people in the outside world for his or whoever’s purposes (the children seem to be for hire, with assignments being brought by an outside contact) but that he is making this killing an intrinsic part of their childhood, using the tools of the rural school teacher to do so. Some of the film’s most effective moments, which inevitably connect the film to real-life stories of the abuse of child soldiers, are where we see the ‘games’ that Gregori has devised to develop the killer instinct whilst ruthlessly exploiting the children’s guilelessness and the fact that their youth helps them avoid detection. To test his charges shooting skills, Gregori has them shoot at groups of coloured balloons with air guns, demanding they hit only certain colours during particular volleys, trying to throw them off by changing up the order of colours. In one unsettling scene a child, who can barely be more than four, practices a typical “hit” by knocking on one of the commune doors, shooting the woman who answers with an paintball gun concealed in his bright rucksack, and ends it by running off crying for help, all to Gregori’s approval and presumably his own gold star on the chart.
Cassel’s character though never has a scene where he clearly lays out his ideology, which becomes a little frustrating when it comes to being able to sense him more fully in three dimensions. All we get are a few sneers to Alexander about the cruelty of the outside world, where people are reduced to sheep, lacking as they do the training to ‘hit a man first’. A case of Kleinman giving us a bit too much mystery. Partisan also never quite reaches a level where it delivers the kind of total knock-out dramatic punch which rewards all the time spent waiting in uncertainty, and some of the child performances feel a little stiff, but it is well-crafted, disquieting, and at a tight 90 minutes doesn’t outstay its welcome.