Berlin 2023

Disco Boy review – cerebral fairytale about the poison of colonialism

Franz Rogowski plays a Legionnaire whose path crosses with a Nigerian guerrilla fighter in a film of pure vigour and vibes

Disco Boy pulls off a not-easy feat: it refuses to explain itself or give in to easy exposition, while never feeling like a baffling affair of arthouse pretension. Over a tight 90 minutes, Giacomo Abbruzzese’s startling debut, which darts between Paris techno clubs and fire-ravaged Nigeria, takes us on a geographical and emotional journey into the heart of a soul-searching Legionnaire: a Conradian odyssey in painterly miniature.

We are introduced to two men, who themselves meet in the middle of the film before parting once more. Aleksei (Franz Rogowski) is a young Belarusian man who illegally enters France – losing his friend in a river crossing during the process – and joins the French Foreign Legion. By doing so, he enters into a Faustian pact: the promise of papers in exchange for his bloodlust in battle. Indeed, anyone wounded in battle can apply to be a French citizen due to a rule known as “Français par le sang versé” (“French by spilled blood”) – a rule that explicitly links flesh and violence with citizenship.

It is on one of these expeditions to Nigeria where Aleksei meets Jomo (Morr Ndiaye), his opposite in every sense. Jomo is a revolutionary activist who spearheads a movement for the emancipation of the Niger delta, fighting for a cause deeply rooted to his home and heart. It is in these counter-gazes, these shifting points of personal and cinematic stance, in which Disco Boy finds its intriguing, ruminative point of view – the contrasting rhythms of gunfire, of club music, of whirring helicopters, of indigenous dance (choreographed with heart-stopping power by choreographer Qudus Onikeku).

For all its inscrutability and oneiric quality, though, Disco Boy finds clarity in its wandering purview. Comparisons to Claire Denis’ Beau travail are evident – the way that physical brawn contrasts against a tormented psyche, and depictions of the FFL as an organisation steeped in the scalding water of colonialism – but Abbruzzese’s vision feels more global, more radically questioning about the notion of national pride (even if the ending here apes Denis Lavant’s ecstatically freeing dance).

Within this, we’re gifted with a film of stunning, often surprising beauty. Hélène Louvart’s cinematography – rightfully deserving of the Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution – offers up Herzogian shots of burning landscapes, contrasting with the epileptic strobe of Parisian nightclubs. The three main characters, disparate initially, are united by dance but also by the fluidity of nature – rivers are a recurring motif (first the Oder, then the Niger, then the Seine), adding to the dreamlike flow of the often impenetrable narrative. The culminate meeting between Aleksei and Jomo is filmed as a heat map: two faceless, moving shapes emblazoned in red, a strange touch that overlays how the spectre of war robs individuality.

Extreme close-ups play with the perspective of interiority and exteriority further: Aleksei is enthralled by the grand marble figures he encounters in Paris, and in Abbruzzese’s tight, almost interrogative gaze, he himself could be the figure in Alexandre Cabanel’s 1847 painting The Fallen Angel – the sinewy muscles, the singular tear, the biblical sense of shame at his actions.

Perhaps, to niggle, the supernatural elements feel out of reach. When Jomo’s sister Udoka (Laetitia Ky) finds herself in Paris, we begin to learn how the haunting events that occurred in Africa have spiritually implanted inside Aleksei’s psyche, a melding of destinies with a mythic twist involving a glowing chestnut eyeball that feels a little too unfathomable. But broadly, Abbruzzese’s film is one that functions – and succeeds – on pure vigour and vibes, its colonialist thesis never too crude and its focus never too wandering.

Disco Boy was screened as part of the Berlin Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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