Predictably enough, in the pantheon of male fantasies, having a harem to yourself in the decrepit destitution of a dystopian commie wasteland ranks lower than a threesome featuring your significant other and the sexy blonde coed next-door. Not that either is a shabby proposition except when taken in vacuum I have yet to see a porno using PARTISAN’s premise as the ruse to a marathon of writhing bodies and contorted faces. And among a couple observations Ariel Kleiman’s film rouses said primal hankering without enlisting the aid of a single sex scene or crude innuendo. That an uncontested access to female companionship of the rainbow variety is just reward for one man’s toil and burden or, in part, thanks to circumstance—only a year inside a burgeoning sequestered commune is shown—is nary a reason to rain on another’s parade.
And besides this procreation angle PARTISAN is uninterested in divulging the minutiae of its apocalyptic setting, if at all it is one to begin with, and it took the third assassination attempt by the most prodigious (Jeremy Chabriel as Alex) in a brood of prepubescent hitmen-in-training to make the connection between the group’s possible source of income and the recurring image of a blue file on each target. And they do live somewhat sufficiently if not lavishly. But other than shooting practice and hit enactments, gardening and homeschooling, on first glance everything is not all work and no play for the clan. There is a karaoke night for the kids and drunken shindigs for the grownups (both in supremely rendered sequences) but elsewhere exposition is reduced to an afterthought as we’re even denied the hushed murmurs of a different, lesser society beyond this makeshift Eden. Quite how this community came into conception is a deliberate mystery that Kleiman titillates the viewer with. It was a tactic which grated on many a disgruntled critic but in the spirit of the occasional sensory delectation can’t we just enjoy the ride with narrative crumbs for a change? Must everything about our cinema nowadays revolve around motives, backstory and other puerile requisites? In PARTISAN, the drama itself is precisely in the dearth of information on offer and part of the intrigue is in trusting the cinematic process and that disclosure is forthcoming. There is a participatory element in honoring that agreement between author and audience, and the ambiance is so effective, so arresting that in awaiting that disclosure you become a reluctant newcomer into the fold albeit without the inconvenience of ramshackle furnishings and communal space.
Yet if one were to be cynical the film is yet another vehicle to showcase Vincent Cassel (as Gregori) in his signature ability to project charismatic range, and here he is in equal doses charming , volatile and troubled, with next to nothing in terms of story threads. Chief among the sparse narrative strands is how Alex by virtue of being the eldest male of the children is next in line for the throne, and it is a perilous blind spot for Gregori when Ariana is constantly tasked with deputizing for him over the children whenever Alex fucks up and proves unreliable. To be concise, he presides over a group of women and their children in a secluded Utopia he’d made his lifework to maintain. Surely favorites were bound to be played except the women collectively turn the other cheek to ideological shenanigans in place of shelter, housing and the occasional romp. Sounds much like life once upon a time? Not all the children are adoptees like the mothers are, and the younger kids could well be his progeny. But there is an anatopism in casting WASP child actors against a rundown Soviet backdrop because, let’s be honest, no English-speaker of fair complexion will ever be forsaken after a war-afflicted Armageddon. In trying to pin the setting to a map (Georgia in Europe) this creates garish levels of abstraction and a departure from reality so glaring it actually works when you’re also tasked with anticipating Gregori’s next move. Despite being the undisputed bread winner, his hold on the cult is not so much material as spiritual and he’ll see his credibility questioned not because of underhanded methods or iron-fist oppression but out of sheer eventuality and mere boredom even. But the rules are simple, toe the ideological line or be cast out to the wilderness. Good luck seeking confirmation of the alternative as the better answer but all indication is in suggestion of Gregori being guilty of no crime other than subjecting the children to committing murder so there is partial truth to some form of societal collapse. He otherwise treats his sprawling family with an affection that understandably borders on micromanagement.
In a previous film I watched I was piqued by the topic of horse breeds and behaviors and considering many social animals function along the single/dominant male structure PARTISAN was a natural follow-up in retrospect. Though sexual competition is absent it is obvious which facet of social behavior is being played on. Here is where the film’s drama enjoys some advantage; in presenting its central conflict as an effect of something else altogether than simple group dynamics getting played up. This was never about competition over reproductive success or power. Or the clash of truth and lies or that Gregori, outnumbered in his role, flew too close to the sun. Perhaps the coming of age story of one cerebral boy comes closest to defining the film but what if for once categories were banished, fates were unclear, motives unexplained and all films were seen for what they are; dramas with tinges of the subgenre? Genres have clearly become a laughable construct, and at times function to delegitimize the cinematic expression instead of enabling its possibilities. PARTISAN was a thriller by the way.