An unsettling but impressive feature debut
You never escape your dad. He helps bring you into the world and decades later he’ll be there to help usher you from it.
This seems to be the central thesis of the curious 2015 film Partisan, directed by Ariel Kleiman and co-written with his frequent collaborator Sarah Cyngler. It is an odd movie, never fully succeeding in its ambition. But in its self-conscious rejection of the notions of cultural identity and conventional filmmaking that permeate our national film industry, and in its keen interest in ideology, it is one of the most interesting Australian films of recent times.
Partisan is Kleiman’s debut feature film. Set in an unknown country at an unknowable time, it follows a polygamous cult-like family, headed by patriarch Gregori (French actor Vincent Cassel). He lives in a dilapidated compound with his many wives and children, all of whom speak in various European accents. The children are being groomed to be child soldiers. The film focuses on the eldest son, 11-year-old Alexander (a stunning performance from Jeremy Chabriel) as he murders various people living outside the compound and slowly comes to question what he is doing.
Partisan might be his debut feature film, but Ariel Kleiman was not an unknown quantity prior to filming. In what has traditionally been a well-worn professional trajectory, he segued from directing short films to feature filmmaking. In what may become a well-worn professional trajectory, he has moved from feature filmmaking into television, directing a number of episodes of the second season of Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake.
Deeper than Yesterday, Kleiman’s uncomfortable Victorian College of the Arts graduation film, won the International Jury Prize in short filmmaking at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. More interestingly, it won the Petit rail d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, presented by the Association des Cheminots Cinéphiles—the Association of Cinephile Railway Workers. Winners receive pieces of steel rail covered in gold, at a ceremony presented at the Cannes railway station.
Deeper than Yesterday’s prizes are an eclectic, if deserved, recognition of the power of this short drama, which takes place on a Russian submarine whose male officers and crew are suffering acute cabin fever. It’s a critical portrait of masculinity run rampant in acutely claustrophobic confines.
His 2007 debut short The Communicator is a sepia-toned video work, set mostly in a Chinese restaurant and narrated by a gravelly voiced chainsmoker reciting pulp generalisations. ‘Time keeps creeping all over the neighbourhood,’ he says at one stage. ‘It’s creeping all over me.’ It’s a clever film with a final surprising reveal—practically a requirement of all short films in a post-Tropfest era—but it’s by no means a gimmicky one.
In between these shorts Kleiman directed a further four films. They include Submission, a wordless and kinetic film about an old woman who stumbles upon an unconscious young man and gives him a makeover. It’s mostly set inside an apartment block. Young Love, from 2009, is set on an Alpaca farm and includes unsubtitled Hungarian dialogue. Then there’s Logman, his fourth short film, which tracks Scandinavian lumberjacks.
Threaded through all of these films is a tendency that is also present in Partisan: Kleiman mostly confines his films to single locations, but they’re not easily definable ones. He has shot the bulk of his films in Victoria, but none of them seem to be set there. They don’t really seem to be set anywhere. He seems unconcerned with presenting us easily identifiable settings for his works. In this stubborn, almost self-conscious refusal to use recognisably Australian settings, Kleiman is operating at an exhilaratingly critical distance from Screen Australia’s potentially stifling encouragement to ‘celebrate Australian stories’.
The way he tells it, Kleiman’s unwillingness to locate Partisan in any national narrative, Australian or otherwise, drove the creative inception of the film. ‘I came across a feature article in the New York Times about the child assassin trades in Colombia,’ he has said. ‘I wanted to strip their story of all the drugs and economic and sociopolitical factors inherent to that reality. I wanted to tell a very simple and human story: something universal, grand and mythic.’
Kleiman seems to demonstrate an almost callous disregard for Colombian child soldiers here. Their stories, complicated by tricky details such as ‘sociopolitical factors’, are apparently insufficiently mythic, insufficiently grand for his imagined universal audience. But it’s also something of an ingeniously pragmatic move. When attempting to make a movie within the current Australian system, it’s probably easiest to set your film nowhere than anywhere else.
Kleiman shot the exterior scenes of Partisan in eastern Europe—Georgia—and the interiors in Victoria—Mt Eliza and Point Nepean. The result is a film that refuses to be geographically pinned down.
And so Partisan begins on the side of the road. It looks and feels cold. From behind, we see Vincent Cassel as Gregori picking up a large piece of lumber. Kleiman’s camera slowly pans up a dilapidated freeway, framed by broken concrete barriers. The camera continues ascending and we see some crumbling towers in a valley. Just as we see these towers Daniel Lopatin’s unsettling electronic score reaches something of a crescendo. It’s an odd moment. A soaring camera and soaring soundtrack centring on some distant, vaguely Soviet-style buildings? The film seems intent on glorifying the fact that its setting is only partially defined.
Not content with scrambling our sense of place, Kleiman also scrambles our sense of time. The second scene of Partisan takes place in a scrappy hospital. Nurses roam the halls in highly stylised, patterned uniforms, complete with hats. Newborn babies are clad in the same material as the nurses. In this unknowable place, at this unknowable time, the first line of the film is spoken.
‘Do you mind if I sit down for a moment,’ Gregori asks one of his wives, who has just given birth.
‘I’m sorry if I’m bothering you.’
It’s a banal start to the film’s dialogue. A couple of moments later, a nurse approaches with their newborn son.
‘Okay, Alexander is clean and ready for the world.’ It’s hard to place her accent as she delivers the line. Eastern European?
‘What a beautiful little man,’ comes Gregori’s reply. ‘Beautiful Alexander.’ Again, it’s impossible to tell where Gregori’s accent is from.
As he reaches down to his newborn son, a mixture of choral and electronic music fades up onto the soundtrack. The second musical crescendo of the film, only minutes after the first, carries the movie’s title onto the screen. It is the sole opening credit. By the time the film cuts from the title to its next scene, we’ve travelled forward 11 years.
What an unusual way to begin a movie. None of it is unified. The camerawork is controlled and the visuals are stunning, but the dialogue is dull, even stilted. This defining tension, between a tightly controlled visual language on the one hand and fairly free-flowing acting and dialogue on the other, drives much of Partisan’s unsettling quality. The characters on screen are not as well behaved as the camera is.
And Partisan’s camera is very well behaved. Early in the film, Kleiman steadily tracks Alexander from behind as he walks through the compound that constitutes the film’s main setting. Eventually he enters his bedroom, the camera scoping the somewhat dingy environment from behind. A slow pan begins on a curtained window framed by fairy lights, before gently continuing across the room as Alexander walks in, goes to his bed and changes into a suit jacket. The camera slows to a halt on Alexander’s bedroom window just as a football is kicked onto it. We then start panning again as Alexander moves to the window, before cutting to a close-up of his face.
It’s a simple camera movement charting an unremarkable moment in Partisan’s narrative. But films are made up of such moments. Not every minute of every movie is imbued with high drama, and you can tell a lot about a filmmaker’s respect for their audience by how they shoot the sequences in between.
The acting is less measured, more free flowing. This probably has something to do with the large cast of children, all running around and playing together. But the adults interact in a similar way.
At one point Gregori’s wives are sunbaking on the terrace of their compound. Alexander’s mother Susanna (Florence Mezzara) enters. ‘We’ve been waiting for you!’ one of the women exclaims. ‘Congratu-lations, sweetheart,’ says another, handing her a little baby tuxedo. The women all applaud. Susanna cries out in delight. The scene is played naturalistically, as if Kleiman is simply capturing a group of women interacting by themselves.
This being a film about child soldiers, violence plays a recurring role in Partisan’s narrative. But rather than portraying this violence in any extensive or realistic way, Kleiman displaces it into two distinct elements of his movie: the film’s aesthetics and Vincent Cassel’s performance.
Kleiman seems almost obsessed with the look of Partisan, and in particular some key visual motifs. The children practise their shooting on striking balloons shaped into love hearts. They wear distinctive blue backpacks and earbuds when killing people. One of the kids, a getaway driver on a motorbike, wears a helmet covered in glitter. A boy shoots his mother with a colourful paint gun for practice. After Alexander murders a mechanic, his getaway ride takes place at twilight, as newly switched-on apartment lights seem to float gently in front of the crumbling buildings housing them.
These unsettlingly beautiful examples recall, in a less intense but functionally similar way, the aesthetic approach of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. As narrative events become more horrific, the film becomes increasingly beautiful to watch. It’s as if Kleiman is daring us to repress the events as they unfold, so that the realisation hits us later, after the final credits roll.
The violence is also present in Cassel’s performance. From the beginning, interactions between father and son are dripping with passive aggression. ‘Today the sun is out and Alexander is a wonderful boy,’ Gregori says on the occasion of his child’s eleventh birthday. Thanks to Cassel’s strange performance the viewer is invited to question just how wonderful he thinks his son is. He delivers the first half of the line forcefully, as if delivering a grand speech, before trailing right off as he finishes the sentence.
‘Don’t go growing up too fast,’ he con-tinues, kissing his son on the cheek. It sounds like a threat. And it’s impossible advice for Alexander to take—after all, his father forces him to kill people. Why Gregori forces his children to do this is never fully explained. Their targets seem to be everyday people in the impoverished town surrounding the compound: a mechanic, a man watching TV.
There are hints. ‘Sometimes I worry that I shelter you kids too much,’ Gregori says at one point. ‘It was our decision, though, to do everything we could to shield you from the ugliness the world has to offer.’ A view of the world that sees training child soldiers as a form of sheltering them from its ugliness is a particularly bitter one.
The impact of Gregori’s world view on his children is presented most strikingly early on. It is a scene that functions as Partisan’s emotional set piece, and it cements the idea that Alexander is a child who has grown up way beyond his years.
The children, their mothers and Gregori gather in the compound’s recreation room. A small TV wrapped in fairy lights sits in the corner of the room. Alexander, his face painted like a tiger, sings a karaoke duet with one of his sisters.
In keeping with the film’s hermetically sealed world, the song does not exist outside Partisan. It’s a downbeat duet called ‘The Hardest Thing to Do’, credited to ‘Tony Primo and Nixxie’ (in reality, Joseph Mount from the band Metronomy and the singer Robyn).
As he sings the song, Alexander is almost obsessively fixated on the TV screen displaying the lyrics. His audience, his family, is cheering his singing, but not once does he tear his eyes away from the screen. Even when his sister sings her part, he doesn’t look away. It’s as if Alexander knows that to glance away from the television at this moment would let his outside life, with all its associated trauma, come rushing back in. Thanks to the actor Jeremy Chabriel’s striking eyes, the effect of the scene is amplified tenfold.
When the camera cuts from Alexander singing to Gregori watching, tears gently begin welling in Gregori’s eyes. He seems to recognise what he is doing to his young son. But the realisation does not prompt any extended self-reflection. These are the tears of a man who, upon witnessing the suffering caused by his ideology, uses that suffering not to challenge but to reaffirm his faith in it.
What does it mean to be Australian? A sizeable chunk of our film industry has become obsessed with answering this question in broad, ‘audience friendly’ terms. The results are all too often films that don’t ask us to consider the question for ourselves, but instead dictate to us fairly contrived attempts at answering it. It’s an obvious point that all too often gets lost in these debates: a film can tell us about our lives as Australians without drawing its characters from notionally Australian archetypes.
Luis Buñuel’s 1972 French film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie can probably tell you more about life as an Australian at the present moment than Tim Ferguson and Marc Gracie’s Australian comedy Spin Out (2016).
Roland Barthes coined an important distinction between ‘readerly’ and ‘writerly’ texts—texts that seem geared around the author’s intended meaning and texts that encourage the reader to create their own.
Partisan, with its scrambled sense of place and time, its interest in ideological transmission and its juxtaposition of a controlled aesthetic style with a free-form acting style, opens up many cracks of interpretation for viewers. And if the viewer is Australian, then by definition Partisan tells us something of ourselves.
It’s funny how movies can work. Years ago a journalist wrote a story for the New York Times. A man read this story and started writing a screenplay. Somebody at Screen Australia decided that they’d help fund the movie. Somebody on the set of the movie decided that the child soldiers’ backpacks should be blue. Somebody at Madman decided to distribute the film. Somebody at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova decided to program it. I came in one afternoon and watched it. And then a year later, after I had all but forgotten this movie, I noticed a kid wearing a similarly coloured backpack at the train station. And thanks to all of these thousands of choices, and all of these colliding institutional forces, and God knows how many other reasons, on that day on that platform at that moment I recalled the mood of the film and suddenly I felt uneasy.
This is the miraculous afterlife of a movie. Partisan will always be there, somewhere, with all the other movies, and occasionally I’ll be prompted to dredge it up again.
My relationship with Partisan mirrors the unsettling fate the film implies will befall its protagonist. In the final scene of the film, the now 13-year-old Alexander apparently seizes control of his life for the first meaningful time. The film doesn’t explicitly show it, but it implies that he is about to shoot his father and flee their compound, taking his baby brother with him.
Despite facing a gun held up by his son, Gregori remains defiant. ‘Hey, you might think you know about life, but you don’t,’ he says. ‘You’re just a child. A little child. The only reason you know how to hold that gun is because I taught you how.’ Cassel delivers the line without any sense of alarm. A gentle snarl forms across his mouth. He seems annoyed more than anything else.
On paper this is an inspirational moment of self-actualisation for Alexander. For the first time in his young life he is standing up to his controlling father, using the very tool—violence—that Gregori has taught him to use. But the 90 minutes of film leading up to it make it fairly clear that this emancipation might be entirely illusory. We have seen the damage Gregori’s ideology has already done to Alexander.
Even if Alexander kills him, the spectre of Gregori will haunt his son for the rest of his life. The kid’s only 13. The ghost of his father will be around for a while yet.