The fine new Australian film Partisan is principally set in a compound of women and children, lovingly ruled over by a scarred character, Gregori. The debut feature is director Ariel Kleiman’s follow up to his hugely successful short Deeper Than Yesterday.
All three leads were born in France
Partisan has an ensemble cast but Gregori, played by French actor Vincent Cassel, 11-year-old Alexander (Jeremy Chabriel) and, to some extent, Alexander’s mother Susanna (Florence Mezzara) are at the heart of the drama. The interactions between this trio have a believability that is striking.
“We did a lot of auditioning to test their chemistry but they were very natural together instantly,” director Ariel Kleiman says of this mother and son. Conveniently both were residents of Sydney – and French born. “They were able to hang out a lot before the shoot, chatting, going out for lunch together, with Jeremy’s mother Laurence too.
Cassel is the only cast member who doesn’t live in Australia – and the only professional actor. He wasn’t available for the first week of the two-week rehearsal period at which acting games, storytelling, hikes and other activities were conducted by actor and singer Dmitri Pronin, founder of the Melbourne Chekhov Drama Studio. (He played the captain in Deeper Than Yesterday, which won more than a dozen awards including at the Sundance Film Festival.) The aim was to make the actors feel like they knew each other well, particularly the on-screen mothers and their children.
“With Vincent in Europe it was more like experimental alchemy, imagining what they would be like together … The beautiful thing that all three had (Cassel, Mezzara and Chabriel) was the French language – and only those three on set. They had familiarity through language.”
That said, most of the actors have accents.
'A screenplay is fake, it’s nothing'
Alexander has an astounding stillness in Partisan and his eyes are luminous. I ask Kleiman, half joking, if he put something in Chabriel’s eyes before each take. Definitely not, he tells me.
I already know from the press kit that Chabriel has been globetrotting since he was a baby. Many Australian actors of world renown lived abroad during childhood or were born to immigrants, Naomi Watts, Nicole Kidman, Eric Bana and Hugh Jackman being examples. Why is that - and is it relevant here?
“Perhaps his [Chabriel’s] travels have matured him,” says Kleiman. “He’s very worldly. He eats sushi and hangs out with a lot of adults. At that age I was just running around with dirt all over my face. He was born in France, has lived in Singapore and London, had to learn English. I guess he would have been put out of his comfort zone, getting to know new people.
“Good actors are incredibly perceptive and great observers of humans. They soak in human behaviour and have the ability to channel it through themselves. Maybe it helps to be an outsider observing culture from a different perspective.”
Kleiman knew he needed a very special boy to play Alexander, someone who could command the screen and match Cassel’s significant presence when they were in the same frame.
“You have to leave room for an actor to bring things to their character, especially with kids – you can’t expect them to deviate too far,” says Kleiman, who wrote the script with regular collaborator – and girlfriend – Sarah Cyngler (above. She was also production designer alongside Steven Jones-Evans and costume designer alongside Maria Pattison. “If someone is being themselves they are going to be more truthful than anything I can imagine in my studio apartment in London (he lives in the UK). A screenplay is fake, it’s nothing, it’s a piece of paper.
“He (Chabriel) brought incredible sensitivity and maturity to the role. I originally imagined that the character would be more gregarious, an alpha male, still a boy but more outspoken.”
The screenplay was awarded the Mahindra Global Filmmaking Award by the Sundance Institute in 2002.
Cassel had never delivered this much dialogue in English
Alexander has been raised to see the world utterly through Gregori’s eyes but is getting old enough to think for himself. That’s the nub of Partisan. How did Kleiman and Cyngler know where to pitch Gregori on the scale of protective father through to controlling megalomaniac?
“We wrote him [Gregori] from a place of love,” says Kleiman. “When Vincent read the script he really connected to the character being just a dad. So much of his motivations are paternal. He wants to give his kids everything he never had.”
Was Kleiman nervous about directing Cassel?
“Yes! All my shorts were with first timers, he says. “I’d not worked with trained actors let alone a big star. For me it was getting to know him as a human, bonding as people. It is crucial when working together that you have that base. We’d only met on Skype but we got on well.”
Kleiman notes that Cassel had never before had to deliver as much dialogue in English so was “a bit out of his comfort zone.” He also mentions that the actor provided many versions of every scene, giving the creative team a lot of material to play with in the editing room, which was both daunting and extremely useful.
'Maybe I’m rebelling against information overload'
Partisan’s unpredictability is one of the many joys of the film. So too is the way it doesn’t reveal backstory.
“I try to make all my films challenging, try and subvert expectations,” says Kleiman. “There’s sadness for me in how a lot of movies feel cookie cutter, manufactured by a machine. We wanted to make the total opposite of that.
“It’s the story of a boy with blinkers on. Up to a certain age he lives life like that but slowly (his view of the world) starts to widen. I didn’t want the audience to know information that he didn’t know. Maybe I’m rebelling against information overload but I wanted to imbue the story in mystery. I’m sick of movies feeding me information. I wanted to focus on the core story.”
Asked what was consistently worrying to him during filming, he pauses, then says: “Whether I’m capturing something truthful: the performances, the actors, the faces, the human core of the film.”
The many children in the film beautifully mob Gregori several times in the film. What does Kleiman think of the filmmaking adage “Never work with children or animals”?
“I only feel comfortable going into a movie if I feel absolutely terrified. It has to feel like a task that I don’t know how I’m going to do … From this fear comes excitement. Not knowing how I’m going to achieve it is exciting. Through chaos comes magic.”
Partisan is now showing in Australian cinemas. Read our review of Partisan here.