VOD film review: Partisan
Ivan Radford | On 16, Jan 2016
Director: Ariel Kleiman
Cast: Vincent Cassel, Jeremy Chabriel
Watch Partisan online in the UK: Sky Cinema / NOW TV / iTunes / Amazon Instant Video / Wuaki.tv / Google Play
Last year, Netflix entered the feature film game with the brutal drama Beasts of No Nation. Starring Idris Elba as a dominating commandant over a platoon of young boys, it was a shocking look at child soldiers, a subject that is rarely discussed. Partisan, which tackles a similar theme and boasts an equally impressive performance by Vincent Cassel, has arrived online without the fanfare of Netflix’s backing – but it’s just as deserving of attention.
Cassel stars as Gregori, the leader of a tiny commune consisting mostly of children. It’s a peaceful existence, cut off from the world: they play, they do gardening, they sing karaoke. Then they train to kill people with paintball guns.
It’s uncomfortable to witness, the rearing of these young assassins, and that’s not always intentional: Kleiman’s script, co-written with Sarah Cyngler, is slow, deliberately so, but also refuses to spell out the answers to its questions, which will frustrate some. The questions, though, are provocative and haunting.
Cassel is disturbingly charismatic as the head of the group, ordering about his charges like a cross between Fagin and a school teacher. He’s firm, yet claims to be fair; bullying, yet says he’s benevolent. His charms appear to extend to some of the childrens’ mothers too, as they sit by and watch him turn their offspring into murderers.
Vincent has a quietly volatile presence that leaves you waiting for his anger to erupt, but there’s a vulnerable streak to his cruelty that floats the surface just as unpredictably: when one anti-social boy, Leo (Alex Balaganskiy), questions Gregori’s instructions, then mocks him for not knowing something, Cassel becomes the petulant one.
Kleiman presents all this with a calm claustrophobia, following the day-to-day life of the strange cult; even when we venture outside the grey, stone walls, we still don’t have a clue where it’s located. That uneasy intimacy marks the debut director out as a talent to watch, as he makes the smart decision to present of events from both Gregori’s perspective and that of 11-year-old Alexander (Chabriel).
The young actor is equally compelling, as Alexander grows more independent, beginning to ponder the morals of what the group are doing. But, like the recent Marthy Marcy May Marlene, Partisan has an appreciation for the lingering influence of authority, as even Alexander subconsciously echoes his pseudo-father figure. “He never needs to think for himself. That’s good,” he says, cradling his baby brother. The result is an absorbing study of indoctrination and control that makes for a thoughtful companion piece to Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation. Compared to its higher-profile counterpart, Partisan is impressively ambiguous, especially for a director’s first feature. Sometimes, though, a little too ambiguous.
Partisan is available on NOW TV, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription – with a 14-day free trial.