Alexander is like any other kid: playful, curious and naive. He is also a trained assassin. Raised in a hidden paradise, Alexander has grown up seeing the world filtered through his father, Gregori. As Alexander begins to think for himself, creeping fears take shape and Gregori's idyllic world unravels.
"Chabriel, in his first ever screen role, is a revelation." | Photo: Ariel Kleiman

"Do you mind if I sit here for a moment?"

It always starts casually. Gregori (Vincent Cassel) prefers to use a light touch - it makes him seem like the reasonable one. It's difficult to know exactly what his intentions are - he controls, very carefully, what the people around him see, butt his love for the world he has created is clear. Next to the crumbling, squalid city, it's a kind of paradise. So he seeks out beautiful women to populate it. Women and children. Without the latter, he couldn't make it work.

The oldest of the children, Alexander (Jeremy Chabriel) has just turned 11. It's not clear if they're biologically related, but Gregori is his father, and more than that, the only adult male in his world. Gregori is his teacher, giving him letters and numbers and gold stars and the ability to understand maps and the ability to shoot guns. The only time Alexander leaves their secluded world, through the tunnel that leads into the gorge, is when he goes to undertake assassinations, earning the money that keeps the commune going. As we see only fragments of what's out there we wonder, at first, if it's the same world we inhabit. Has some calamity made all this possible? In our ignorance, we share some of Alexander's vulnerability. If there's a police service out there, or social services, we don't know. The only rules are Gregori's rules.

Many people missed the real darkness in M Night Shyamalan's The Village, distracted by its twist. Partisan takes the same basic idea but lets us see the danger of it more directly. It's working class version of the fantasy; where Shyamalan's colony bought its secrecy with cash and connections, Kleiman's relies on cunning, sharing, hard labour and an acceptance of the world's uglier side. Gregori doesn't want - or doesn't believe - that they can separate themselves from violence entirely; instead he's trying to outsource it. But when a newly arrived boy proves more sensitive, pleading with him not to make the chickens 'extinct', his own temper begins to fray; and Alexander, watching what follows, begins to have serious doubts.

As fans of the French actor might expect, Cassel dominates the film, clearly relishing a role in which he doesn't have to restrain his natural charisma. He makes Gregori warm, spirited, easy to like, so that it's tempting to overlook the brutal side of what he does, like Alexander's mother who dreams of taking the easy route down a hill. When their circumstances worry her, she chooses to re-route her thoughts, something which is getting harder as her son gets older and she begins to fear for him; Gregori is the king and a restless crown prince means trouble. Wisely, the film avoids asking questions about why the other women stay, or why they would want to raise their children together and share their man. Such situations are, after all, not unheard of in reality. We do see the bond between them, a joyful togetherness which anyone would hesitate to leave.

Chabriel, in his first ever screen role, is a revelation. with an impressive screen presence that enables him to hold his own even against Cassel on top form. Quiet, never showy, he takes his time to make that presence felt as his character ages and becomes more self-aware. By the end, dialogue - words here never having been reliable - has become almost entirely superficial. Kleiman's slow camera works with Chabriel's tiny gestures, and it's a detail - itself indicative of Gregori's failings - that delivers the final punch.

Reviewed on: 01 Oct 2015
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A boy grows up in a commune, trained to become an assassin, and begins to doubt its leader.
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Director: Ariel Kleiman

Writer: Sarah Cyngler, Ariel Kleiman

Starring: Vincent Cassel, Jeremy Chabriel, Florence Mezzara, Sapidah Kian, Samuel Eydlish, Wietse Cocu

Year: 2015

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: Australia

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