Partisan, a coming-of-age morality play, starts with an origin story. A road in a rural area, a dilapidated expanse of housing. It may be muddy and run down and even slightly familiar, but there’s something in the air that is magical, that places it outside the realm of reality and in childhood fantasies. A man (Gregori, played by Vincent Cassel) hoists a bunch of wood onto his back. The camera watches, focused on his scarred back as he constructs a world in blank rooms lit by candles. He builds a table of marble and the wood, somehow against nature able to lift it. Then, he goes out to a local hospital, walking the hallways until he spies just what he wants. An heir (Alexander, played as an 11-year-old by Jeremy Chabriel). The sequence is the most fantastical in the film. With choral music intensifying and few words, it feels grander and more romanticised than the rest. It less resembles fact than it does myth. The beginning of a religion, a fabled version told to children, viewed as a triumphant, mythical moment instead of serious.
But despite dabbling in religious imagery in this scene (Jesus Christ carrying the cross, and even a warped version of The Last Supper), and the world that Gregori creates somewhat resembling a cult, the meaning is much more allegorical than literal. It’s about a time, that fragile moment between child and teenager, when those stories, myths fed to children, start to be questioned.
It’s a shift so minor, something that doesn’t change through action, but perception. A loss of innocence, suddenly viewing the world through new eyes. Director Ariel Kleiman shoots the worldview that Gregori has create through Alexander’s eyes, bearing witness to everything around him, changing as he matures. It’s initially a childlike creation, complete with karaoke and and treasures, the commune a sanctuary where Gregori is some kind of benevolent leader and father of all the ‘saved’ children and the protector of their mothers.
But then, Alexander yet again doing what he has been trained to do when there’s a shift. Gregori is no longer a savior or person to look up to. Instead, Kleiman starts to pull away the layers, Alexander eventually viewing Gregori as a man desperately trying to hold onto the world he has created because he was unable to be accepted into another, as his maxims of absolute family loyalty are questioned for the first time.
It’s a fascinating way to view coming of age – children are indeed partisans of adults until they start to think for themselves and develop their own ideas – and this is where Kleiman’s utterly singular film excels. But while effective in providing a gradual realisation of the menace beneath, Alexander’s sole perspective ultimately deprives Partisan of some potential depth and complexity, for we never see or hear of any motivations behind Gregori’s community of single mothers and their children. Sympathy? Money? Revenge? Regardless, the insights Partisan scratches the surface of are enthralling.