Marina Ashioti

Disco Boy – first-look review

The stories of a French Foreign Legionnaire and a Nigerian guerrilla fighter converge in Giacomo Abbruzzese’s frustrating feature debut.

With Franz Rogowski having established himself as one of the most singular and distinctive European acting talents gracing the silver screen today, it’s no surprise that audience anticipation levels would be high at the prospect of another 2023 Rogowski-led film, following his highly-lauded performance in Ira Sachs’ Passages. In Giacomo Abbruzzese’s feature debut, Rogowski plays Aleksei, a young Belarussian who, along with his “comrade in misfortune”, Mikhail (Michał Balicki) seeks a new life in France, where he finds himself trapped in a Faustian bargain. Clinging to the promise of a French passport, Aleksei joins the French Foreign Legion, a military corp that grants its foreign legionnaires a French nationality after three years of service.

Rogowski plays the strong-willed, tormented Aleksei with nervous energy, aptly segueing between vulnerability, fragility and muted machismo. Just as we’re about to be pulled into his narrative, Abbruzzese shifts his gaze to a village in the Niger Delta, juxtaposing the French Foreign Legionnaires with a guerrilla group fighting against the oil companies that are threatening their locality’s survival. This is where we meet Jomo (Morr Ndiaye), the titular Disco Boy, who we’re led to believe is Aleksei’s alter ego. With all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, these parallel narratives serve to depict an image armed conflict from shifting points of view, until the two men are faced with one another in the Nigerian jungle, causing their destinies to intertwine.

Jarring synths shifting in and out of phase within Vitalic’s dark, abrasive score, form an impressive tapestry of sound that works well with the film’s choreographic life force. This consciousness roots itself in sequences of traditional, kinesthetic dance around bonfires in Jomo’s village – mostly through Jomo’s sister Udoka (Laëtitia Ky) – as well as sequences of the legionnaires’ nightclub outings, training exercises and assault courses (in one jarring sequence, the soldiers are ordered by their general to chant the lyrics of Édith Piaf’s ‘Non, Je ne regrette rien’ whilst marching in the cold). Comparisons to Beau Travail are indeed inevitable, with Rogowski’s Aleksei joining Denis Lavant’s Galoup in the Legionnaires Who Can Bust A Move Cinematic Universe.

Once he returns to France, Aleksei is haunted by Udoka – her presence in the nightclub that the legionnaires frequent along with her hypnotic dance routines begin to bend his grasp on reality. Although these hallucinations can be understood as Aleksei going through PTSD, Udoka appears to be the sole human agent able to grant the film access to the pool of magical realism. This marks a potential ideological blindspot in Abbruzzese’s attempt to make a film about the very experience of otherness, in that it succumbs to a depiction of African femininity as a source of mystery and intrigue.

In the same way that (in the words of Edward Said) the Orient functions as “the West’s surrogate and underground self”, Aleksei’s precarious relationship with reality being enabled by the spectre of a silent African woman does little to undermine the mythology of Africa as a heartland of magic and primitivism, always seen in relation to Europe, a place of rationalism and modernity. This isn’t to say that the characterisation of Nigerians within the film is harmful, exoticised or idealised in any way; it’s simply vague enough to circumvent those criticisms.

The insertion of a comically smug American Vice journalist sent to report on the guerrilla group as “the Nigerian government’s biggest enemy” further distances the filmmaker from displays of such overt sensationalism. Unfortunately, Disco Boy is afflicted with the curse of trying to pack too much (in terms of both style and substance) into its 92-minute runtime, rendering it incapable of saying much at all.

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Published 20 Feb 2023

Tags: Disco Boy Franz Rogowski Giacomo Abbruzzese

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