Told through the eyes of Alexander (Jeremy Chabriel), an eleven year old on the cusp of discovering his own moral compass, Ariel Kleiman's debut film Partisan is a cautionary tale about the effects dogma can have on vulnerable minds.
Alexander's father Gregori (Vincent Cassel) is a charismatic ringleader of a closed community made up of eight seemingly abandoned mothers and their offspring. Children are shielded from the dangers of the outside world and warned that curiosity can create vicious fires. Denied permission to wander, they barely leave Gregori's side, except when he sends them out on assassination missions.
Although extreme, at its heart Partisan is a story about the inevitable moment when every child realises the adults around them are fundamentally flawed. It's heartbreaking and quietly fantastic.
We sat down with Ariel to talk about innocence lost, growing pains, and casting Vincent Cassel as the lead in his first feature.
What inspired you to create Partisan?
The original spark came from an article in the New York Times about child assassins in Colombia. Everything I’ve made has been inspired by an image, and in this case it was literally the image of a child gunning down a man. Not only was it disturbing, it was so surreal and absurd. I immediately knew I wanted to turn that gut reaction into a film, but I didn’t feel I was the right person to make that specific story about Colombia. What I was more interested in was the human drama behind the crime: the tragedy of adults passing their insecurities and fears onto children.
The film has an ambiguity that adds an almost magical element. You don’t state where it’s set, or in which time period. Why leave those details out?
I didn’t see this movie as being a realist work. I wanted it to feel more like a myth, or a fable. A lot of fables use extreme characters and stories to tell tales about very ordinary things. At most points, for example, Gregori is incredibly paternally motivated. That’s what Vincent connected with most in the script: many of Gregori's anxieties and motivations are scarily relatable.
Another big inspiration was the decision to tell the story from Alexander’s perspective. He’s growing up with blinkers on. Like any child experiences, as you grow up the blinkers slowly widen, and it can be a mind-altering experience, realising that the adults in your life are just people too.
It was great to see Jeremy Chabriel, this tiny person, holding his own against an actor like Cassel. How did you find him?
That was really daunting. When I wrote the script, I was pretty naive. Then it got to a point where I thought, “Shit, how are we going to find this boy?!” He’s the hero of the film, he's in pretty much every scene, and he has to go up against Vincent. We knew we needed someone remarkable and ended up finding Jeremy through a French school in Sydney. He’s a very sensitive young man. He’d never acted before and his audition tape was shot on a really average camera, but his eyes just kind of glowed and he held himself with this real maturity.
The other child actors weren’t all stretched in quite the same way, but as director you still had to communicate the story to them. Given the difficult nature of the film, how did you accomplish that?
Jeremy read the whole screenplay and knew what was happening, but we mainly kept the other children away from the themes. They were all so different, each with their own big imagination and personality. One girl would hug my leg every morning and wouldn’t let go, and there was another who was always asking when he was going to get more lines. Overall the girls were very easy to work with, very professional. The boys, on the other hand, were mainly troublemakers, pouncing around the place.
What was your thinking behind commissioning musicians like Jarvis Cocker and Metronomy to record original faux 1980s pop songs?
When we wrote the script and started to shoot the film it just didn't feel right to use pop songs that existed in our world, because people have existing memories associated with them. The setting is constructed as this nowhere land, so we went about crafting pop songs that would have been hits in our no man’s land, pop classics that no one has ever heard of. I basically made a list of artists I’d love to see tackle that brief, and amazingly, some of them said yes.
One of those numbers, “The Hardest Thing To Do”, is sung by Alexander at karaoke. The music video made for it is so much fun to watch – so ridiculous and reflective of 80s styling. Where did the idea come from?
I got a good friend who I knew could bring the cheese to make those videos. We talked a lot about a need to make them feel realistic.
The karaoke scene in the film was actually inspired by my travels in Asia. We were travelling through Vietnam and were lucky enough to be invited over for dinner by a Vietnamese family. After dinner, they had this ritual where they all huddle around the TV to sing karaoke. The kids sang with such sincerity and deep emotion. These songs were about love and heartbreak and whatever adult pop songs are about, but somehow it was incredibly powerful.
What was Vincent like on set? Partisan is your first feature film, so working with such an established actor must have felt exciting?
He was a nightmare. Really difficult and arrogant.
No, he’s a special, special guy. The second he came on set, you felt the energy of the whole crew shift. Everyone wanted to be at the top of their game, and he made everyone feel more confident. I’ve seen him portray menace and threat and foreboding, and he does do all of that effortlessly, but some of my favourite moments of him on-screen are tender and vulnerable. Those sad, insecure moments. The way he brought those aspects of Gregori’s character to life was really something.
Partisan is released in U.K. cinemas on 8th January.