Dark and light, black and white: polar opposites are at the heart of this dazzling feature debut from French-Italian director Giacomo Abbruzzese. Starring Franz Rogowski, Disco Boy opens with the chirpy sounds of Belarusian football fans riding a bus to Poland – but quickly shifts gears to a darker narrative.
In Disco Boy, the erratic journey of a Belarusian emigrant and an African freedom fighter collide, bringing their mirrored histories to a head in a film that’s at once hallucinatory and utterly realistic. Directed by Giacomo Abbruzzese and featuring a star turn from Franz Rogowski, the film is like a mash-up of Claire Denis’s 1999 Beau Travail and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Remember His Past Lives.
The movie begins with Aleksei (Rogowski) on the bus from his home in Belarus to a soccer match in Poland, dreaming of a life in France where he’ll be able to eat all the cheese he wants and drink all the wine. But a chance encounter with Jomo (Mor Ndiaye) and his sister, Udoka, whose village has been raided by government soldiers, puts that dream in jeopardy.
The film traces the two men’s paths from the wilds of Nigeria to Paris nightclubs, with a deft blend of magical realist flourishes and gritty military action. Whether in the muddy woods of Nigeria or the pulsing discothèques of Europe, the action is tense and thrilling, with moments of drama that feel lifted from Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Cinematographer Helene Louvart, who has worked on Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter and both of Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro, captures the natural beauty of Africa but also its devastation with equal aplomb.
Giacomo Abbruzzese’s bold debut feature Disco Boy brims with sinister nocturnal energy. Whether traipsing through the Subcarpathian forest as Aleksei or submitting to military training, wirey Franz Rogowski embodies his character’s pain and need to prove himself with unerring conviction. Helene Louvart’s decadent cinematography evokes an intoxicating sense of darkness. And the pulsing thrum of French producer Vitalic’s acid house music soundtrack, more soundscape than score, helps accentuate the film’s underlying sense of foreboding.
While the film has a few issues connecting its two intertwining stories, it’s undeniably mesmerizing to look at. From its opening scene with football fans and tourists taking a bus to a Paris match, the film is visually thrilling and sets a high bar for its acting performances.
The clash between Aleksei and Jomo is a key example. Abbruzzese and Louvart shoot this confrontation with heat cameras and up close, giving it a supernatural edge that transcends its obvious thematic points.
In a time when our world is increasingly divided and polarized, Disco Boy’s vision of two men who share an existential struggle is timely and important. But despite its sweeping landscapes and gritty violence, the war and military movies do not glorify war or treat its subjects with contempt. Rather, it is an unapologetic indictment of colonialism and a warning against its dangerous legacy. Ultimately, the film succeeds because it is driven by its outstanding acting performances.
Giacomo Abbruzzese’s oblique but aggressive fiction debut, Disco Boy, is about the unflinchingly brutal world of the Foreign Legion. And while mercenaries are usually portrayed as calculatingly unscrupulous, the film’s evocation of their hellish, Faustian trip on both sides of an imperialist conflict highlights more existential complexities than usual. The film’s bold, visceral and phantasmagorical style—a mashup of Claire Denis’s Beau Travail and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives—and Franz Rogowski’s mesmerizing performance are a force to be reckoned with.
Cinematographer Helene Louvart is also in impressive form, applying two different styles for the two distinct narratives and curating a dreamy atmosphere that suits the film’s melancholic emotions. She uses a glistening costume to render Aleksei in his hotel room a ghost or a reverie, and she uses long lingering shots in the forest and on the dance floor to emphasize the uncanny, the liminal.
The lack of clarity that characterizes much of Disco Boy’s imagery—the shadowy nocturnal sequences, the blurred visions—mirrors life’s perpetual uncertainties, and it lends the film its underlying gravitas. It’s a haunting, beautiful and provocative work that shows off an original voice in French cinema.
Director Giacomo Abbruzzese’s debut has echoes of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and its exploration of imperialism and the effects it has had on other cultures feels both timely and urgent. It is also a visually stunning film with a spellbinding performance from Franz Rogowski.
Pushed and pulled by Franz Rogowski’s border-busting turn as a paperless migrant, Disco Boy is an intensely physical film with a mystical aura. He’s a man who fits everywhere and nowhere, his name, nationality, and even spiritual sense of self in constant flux. His face is a map of trauma and indescribable wounds, a visage that resonates with the abyss.
His odyssey takes him to France where he encounters Jomo, another drifter from a Nigerian village who fights the foreign oil companies that threaten his home. Their worlds collide in a violent, yet strangely poetic way. Using heat cameras to shoot this collision, Louvart creates a sense of otherworldly dread as dark and light become intertwined.
With its psychedelic spectacle for the eyes and ears, Disco Boy is an original film that questions the structure of the modern world. Although it doesn’t fully weave together its many threads to satisfying effect, this debut from Giacomo Abbruzzese shows promise as a bold auteur filmmaker. It’s a unique, intelligent film that will place its magnetic lead actor in the spotlight.