Partisan tells the story of an urban commune, led by the charismatic Gregori (Vincent Cassel), and supported by its children, who are trained to carry out assassinations in the outside world. (Kleiman, who co-wrote the film with his girlfriend Sarah Cyngler, does an impressive job of making the outlandish premise seem almost mundane; shock value is not the point here.) But the system begins to break down when 11-year-old Alexander starts to question his upbringing.
Matthew Lickona: Tell me about casting Alexander. I thought actor Jeremy Chabriel had just the face he needed to have.
Ariel Kleiman: Alex is hero of the film, and when it came time to cast him, it felt pretty daunting, because we were looking for someone with a lot of unusual traits for a boy that age. And then when we cast Vincent Cassel as Gregori, that raised the stakes even more, because we needed a boy who could take him on and command the screen in the same way. And that’s how I felt when I saw Jeremy: his face and his eyes light up the screen. And he held himself with this incredible stillness and maturity and sensitivity. There was this inner strength in him that suddenly made the character very believable. It was a pretty easy choice.
ML: Watching the film made me think about moments in my own life where I’d realized, “Gosh, the old man isn’t perfect.”
AK: When we started writing the film, we were at a point in our lives where we didn’t feel like kids anymore, but we also didn’t necessarily feel like adults. I felt like we could see the perspective of both camps kind of clearly, and the relationship between the two is such fertile ground.
ML: Gregori gives a speech where he assures Alexander that one day, he’ll look back and realize he was right. Have you ever had moments like that?
AK: Constantly. I mean, throughout life, you always know everything. And then you look back and you’re like, “Shit, I didn’t know anything then.” I also had a great auntie who always used to tell me when I was naughty, “You’ll remember me, and you’ll regret what you’re doing right now.” It’s a classic guilt move.
ML: Tell me about developing the contours of the cult — what you decided to make clear and what you decided to keep fuzzy.
AK: Even though you could define the group as a cult, that was never our inspiration as a topic or theme to explore. It was, “Here’s a group of flawed humans, flawed parents who have been led by Gregori to remove themselves from the outside world because he genuinely thinks that’s the best thing for them. As for the rest, it was really important for us to tell the story from Alexander’s perspective, to put the audience in his shoes and have them go on his journey of self-awakening. I liked the idea of seeing Gregori through Alexander’s eyes and not learning more about his character than Alexander knows.
ML: I was struck by the “popstar of the week” karaoke scene, because Gregori blocks out so much of the outside world, and yet he lets the kids sing karaoke as a kind of treat. Though admittedly, they’re not singing along to standard pop music.
AK: That was specifically inspired by a trip that Sarah and I took through Vietnam. We were lucky enough to be invited to some Vietnamese family dinners, and we noticed that after dinner they had this kind of ritual where they would all sit around the TV and play these Vietnamese pop songs that, to us, sounded very cheesy. There was a lovely kind of ritualistic reward quality to it, but what really struck us was the way the kids sang karaoke. It was so different from our usual association with it, which are mostly drunken tomfoolery and idiotic behavior. With these kids, it was done with such genuine emotion; there was such depth in their performance. It was this incredibly powerful way for them to express their innermost feelings. In the film, it’s through those performances that we get to see the inner weight and darkness that these kids are having to harbor.
ML: Speaking of inner darkness, do you think Gregori had a plan for what he would do when the kids reached the age where they start to rebel?
AK: We discussed that a lot. We actually felt that he didn’t have an endgame. He just didn’t think it through that well. At the point where we meet Gregori and Alexander, all these things are coming to a head, and it’s a bit of a shock to Gregori. Throughout the film, he’s kind of crumbling under the pressure of it. He just doesn’t know how to deal with it.
ML: It’s weirdly heartbreaking, because aside from the brutal violence he trains the children to perpetrate on strangers, he really does want to create a sweet, safe world. He wants to be kind and gentle toward his own, and you can feel his frustration when he starts to slip into anger.
AK: Yeah. We meet the group at the end of the golden years for Gregori, when all the kids were malleable clay. I guess every parent goes through that, in a way. You get scared that your kids don’t need you anymore.
ML: And speaking of brutal violence, I was impressed with how you managed to make the whole “child assassin” scenario feel ordinary as opposed to shocking.
AK: I think that came from the feeling that it was ordinary to Alexander. He knew no other way. Personally, I found it to be more disturbing that way. It highlighted in a simple way just how malleable these kids are.
ML: Finally, could you talk about the creative process with your girlfriend and cowriter Sarah?
AK: Well, we conceived and wrote the film together. And then Sarah was also the co-production designer and co-costume designer. A lot of the design concepts for the film began to evolve at the script stage; it was incredibly detailed in terms of describing the world that Gregori built. It almost read more like a novel than a screenplay, which frustrated some people, but others really liked it.
ML: On that score, I was tickled by the use of facepaint and bright silly colors in the commune’s games and play. There’s one scene where Gregori is getting angry, but he’s still smeared with facepaint, and it’s wonderfully ridiculous. I’ve been there.
AK: I’ve read a few things by people who feel that the film is really gray and grimy. I appreciate that the outside world looks like that, but for us, we felt that there was quite a bit of color and warmth and love.