Partisan seems to be built out of a variation on that old press tour cliché, “on the surface it’s about ____, but at it’s core, it’s really a story about family.” With Partisan, that would go something like “on the surface, it’s a story about a colony of child assassins, but at its core, it’s really a story about fathers and sons.”
Compelling and insightful as Partisan‘s father-and-son dynamic is, it’s hard not to find yourself thinking TELL ME ABOUT THE COLONY OF CHILD ASSASSINS, DAMN YOU! Who wants to know about adolescence and innocence and Oedipal dynamics when there’s a man raising a cult of murderous children in an abandoned apartment complex? Partisan meditates when you wish it would elaborate. It’s clearly crafted and hyper-competent, but it feels like one of those movies that’s objectively “good,” but probably wouldn’t be one of your favorites.
We meet Vincent Cassel, who was born to play a cult leader, as he’s chatting up a battered mother in a maternity ward. “I couldn’t help but notice you are the only one here without flowers,” Cassel’s character coos in his French accent, like some bug-eyed Pepe Le Pew, pulling a flower from his lapel. Is there a human male as simultaneously ugly and handsome as Vincent Cassel? Grigori is the character’s name, and he seems to be recruiting. Cut to 10 years later, he’s giving a speech at that baby’s 10th birthday party. The boy is the eldest of a small clan, a dozen or so kids with six or seven of their mothers, presided over by this seemingly benevolent (if greasy) patriarch. They sing karaoke, earn gold stars at home school, and keep identical blue backpacks on a row of hooks. Grigori is the only adult male, and between this and ’71, the consensus among filmmakers seems to be that children without fathers make the best soldiers.
Who is this dude? Where are they? Why does everyone have a French accent? Partisan is not a movie for those who like their basic questions answered. On the one hand (I know, I know, just go with me here) it’s a nice subversion of the usual Hollywood tendency to overexplain every plot point with needless backstory. On the other… Jesus, this is such a compelling premise, at least give us a little. Does this guy work for someone? What’s his end goal? Who are the people he wants to kill? I don’t need to know about his desert island discs or turn ons, or hell, even what country they’re in (at one point I believe I saw Cyrillic lettering). But answering a few more of the basics wouldn’t have hurt.
Instead the film focuses on the relationship between Cassel and his adopted (I think) son, played by Jeremy Chabriel, who’s a damned fine actor, even though I’m philosophically opposed to child actors. The camera lingers (and lingers) on Chabriel’s bovine blue eyes as he confronts a victim, in a way that makes you wonder what he’s feeling. Sadness? Compassion? Glee? Nothing at all? Killing looks fun, but I’m sure it starts to feel like a job after a while. More jerks to cap? Ugh.
The son has been his cult leader stepfather’s star pupil and number one hitboy up until now, but there’s a growing rift between them. The boy is becoming more driven to act out, first out of simple curiosity, then out of defiance. When a huge rift develops – a sort of chicken feud, to be specific – between the patriarch and the boy’s autistic brother (I think?), the boy takes his brother’s side.
The film functions as this sort of increasingly eerie horror film, where the demon is adolescence. You’d be tempted to see Cassel’s character as the villain, on account of him grooming a small army of tiny assassins in a bombed out ghost town for unspecified reasons (people in glass houses, etc…), but we see the horror as much from his perspective as from the boy’s. As the boy grows out of his childhood innocence, his father stops being a superhero. And from the father’s perspective, he has to watch his once-obedient star pupil whom he has always treated with love, compassion, and understanding grow distant and uncontrollable. Anyone who has ever taught junior high kids knows that at a certain age, kids start to do the opposite of whatever you say, no matter how ingratiating you are. It’s just a natural progression – disobeying adults is the first step to becoming one – but heartbreaking to watch all the same.
The coming-of-age, loss-of-innocence narrative in Partisan isn’t delivered in a hokey way, it’s done through intense scenes, cleverly chosen small details, and within a premise that could scarcely be more singular. It really is a good film, with some powerful moments. But it’s hard not to be disappointed in a story that spews out so many lurid, intriguing threads and then spends the vast majority of its time obsessing over only the most familiar ones. Nonetheless, a lot of people will like this film, and they won’t be wrong. Though they might be French.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.