Vincent Cassel is as compelling as ever in Ariel Kleiman’s intriguing if frustrating debut
A moody, menacing performance from Vincent Cassel can carry a film a long way. In Australian director Ariel Kleiman’s intriguing feature debut Partisan, the French star is on charismatic form as a cult leader determined to keep the outside world at arm’s length. The film invites a slow deliberation as to whether he is a saviour or an oppressor, and that lingering sense of ambiguity is both its strength and a limitation.
Inspired by an article about child assassins in Colombia, the film is set in an unnamed city where Gregori (Cassel) leads a closed community of women and children that serves equally as a safe haven and a form of prison. Gregori seems patient and avuncular, presiding over the gang of children like a latter-day Fagin.
Given that this is Cassel, you suspect some kind of ticking time-bomb beneath that benevolent facade and we gradually learn more of his mercurial nature and the life of a community in which the children are trained to become killers. The most skilled of these children is the community’s firstborn, 11-year-old Alexander (confidently played by newcomer Jeremy Chabriel, who easily stands his ground against Cassel). Alexander’s growing instinct to challenge and defy Gregori becomes the film’s most arresting element, especially when he starts to develop his own sense of right and wrong.
There are certainly enough ingredients here to make for a compelling film, but Kleiman seems dourly intent on creating atmosphere and sustaining the air of mystery rather than fully developing a satisfying story. Partisan looks striking and throws up some interesting notions regarding the corruption of innocence and the gullibility of the weak. Yet too many questions are left unanswered and too much information is withheld to make it an entirely successful venture, even with that seductive performance from Cassel.
Selected release from Fri 8 Jan.