It is a quiet and solitary moment of rebellion.
A boy purchases and eats a chocolate bar. He hesitates before buying it, and throws anxious glances over his shoulder while he eats. It’s a clandestine moment, but he eats ferociously, with pleasure. The chocolate is swallowed quickly before he reenters his family’s compound, with the bittersweet taste still thick on his tongue.
The eleven-year-old boy is Alexander (Jeremy Chabriel) and he is our guide throughout Partisan – the compelling, assured debut feature from Melbourne-born, London-based filmmaker, Ariel Kleiman.
Partisan beautifully evokes that complex space between childhood and adulthood, when we start to question the worldview we have inherited – when we begin to see the world through our own eyes. For Alexander, the forbidden pleasure of the chocolate is part of his growing awareness of his place in the world – and also of the moment where he begins to question it. Partisan plays out in an environment that is strange and somewhat surreal, but also emotionally accessible and never entirely alienating. It is both a coming-of-age story, and an innocence-coming-undone story.
Alexander’s father figure is Gregori, played by French actor Vincent Cassel with his usual potential for menace, but also a core of vulnerability and pitiable tragedy. Gregori is a damaged man who has created an alternative world in which to live; a world in which he no longer feels powerless. He has peopled this world with women he has rescued from the brutality outside, and their children, for whom he functions as father, provider and teacher. Alexander and his mother Susanna (Florence Mezzara), the first of many mother and child pairs, were brought here when he was a newborn.
The women and their children live separately but together in a compound on the outskirts of town, a subterranean lair in which Gregori, like the Pied Piper, has delivered them all to ‘safety’. He is the only adult male and this world is shaped by his rules, by the knowledge he shares, by the information he distorts, by his elaboration of a moral universe and code (‘hit a man before being hit’). The children, although encouraged to be creative and expressive, are raised like the chickens trapped in the courtyard – they only know that their lives have been demarcated by Gregori; the outside world is, for the most part, off-limits. Despite the sense of togetherness and contentment, danger lies within. From the film’s start, Kleiman mobilises an atmosphere of unnerving tension and simmering violence to slowly expose this danger.
It’s discomforting too because we don’t know where we are. The film’s setting has no definable location. The scenes at the commune were shot in Mount Eliza, Melbourne, purpose-built on the grounds of a winery; the exterior shooting took place in Georgia. Despite the ravaged, war-torn appearance of the outside world, it could be anywhere. The intention, Kleiman tells me, was to create a ‘Nowhere Land’ – a world we recognise but can’t really place. His actors possess a disparate collection of accents, fashions have no identifiable timeframe, and the ‘Number 1’ pop songs that feature in key scenes were crafted from scratch for the film by UK band Metronomy, French artist Sébastien Tellier and former Pulp front man Jarvis Cocker. All these elements heighten Kleiman’s fable-like style of storytelling.
The spark that inspired Partisan was the plight of child assassins in Colombia. Kleiman says that when he read about this horror, he didn’t think he, a ‘guy from suburban Melbourne’, was the right filmmaker to tell this story at this stage in his career. But he was troubled by the idea that ‘these kids were doing what the adults were telling them to, in a very unemotional way.’ Partisan grapples with these questions, and like the best cinema provokes many others. Kleiman’s focus is on behaviour, rather than sociopolitical or economic contexts. This offers an opportunity to distill his characters’ world to its essence, what Kleiman calls a ‘petri dish’ of human experience. His prize-winning short film Deeper Than Yesterday (2010) similarly created a rarefied world within the confined space of a submarine, in which men’s behaviour can tested. Kleiman describes these settings as ‘isolated worlds where society is stripped away’ and a ‘more animalistic side of human behaviour’ emerges.
Kleiman titled his film Partisan in keeping with the literal meaning of the word – a devout follower. He explains that the film begins with the premise that ‘a child is the greatest devout follower … up to a certain age.’ Kleiman eloquently describes childhood as a time ‘where we experience the world with blinkers on.’ It is a time when our worldview is shaped by our parents and to a lesser extent, our teachers and peers. These blinkers are even more pronounced in the extreme environment of Partisan’s compound, where Alexander’s knowledge of right and wrong is defined solely by what his parents tell him. But as we grow up we inevitably start to see and think for ourselves, and this awakening becomes Alexander’s story. As Kleiman says, the blinkers slowly ‘widen’ as he ‘starts to see more and more and understand things his own way.’
The blinkers are on for us as an audience too. Partisan is presented from Alexander’s point of view, and does away with the need to understand Gregori’s motives in any conventional way. This may frustrate some viewers, but the decision not to spoon-feed us Gregori’s backstory is one of the film’s great strengths. Kleiman’s aim was to create an ‘impressionistic world’; one that ‘is not meant to be understood literally.’
Working from a script he co-wrote with partner Sarah Cyngler, Kleiman imbues childhood with a sense of mystery grounded in this imperfect understanding of the world. The film’s opening scenes (a hypnotic sequence that plays before the title card) focus first on Gregori and then on Susanna, and contain ample information to establish the context for us to meet Alexander eleven years later, on the day of his birthday. From this point on, Kleiman’s film is told resolutely from Alexander’s point of view – what he sees, hears and understands. Like François Truffaut’s Le Quatre Cents Coups (1959) and Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Rosetta (1999), this is cinema in the first person, a consensus of storytelling and style. Alexander takes us by the hand and leads us through his world. We walk with him and in his shoes. Our point of identification within the narrative is firmly his and our knowledge is limited to what he does and doesn’t know. If he knows nothing about Gregori’s past, then nor do we.
Kleiman includes plenty of nuance and detail; we just need to be prepared to seek it. It’s significant that Alexander eats the chocolate bar when he does – he has just followed Gregori’s orders for what looks like the final time. He has felt the enormity of his actions; has understood in some fundamental way, without being told, that he was wrong. Consuming the chocolate bar is a bold act of defiance against Gregori and everything he stands for. Alexander begins to ask questions, think for himself. Life will never be the same again. There is a spark of conscience, but more importantly Alexander gains consciousness. The blinkers of childhood have fallen and shattered; his eyes are now wide open.
Partisan is released 28 May.