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‘Disco Boy’ Review: A Fierce Franz Rogowski Can’t Save This Pretension-Plagued Debut



A young Belorussian attempts to make the dangerous trip across the EU to sign up for the French Foreign Legion while a young rebel leader in Niger and his sister attempt to help their people survive the ravages of post-colonialism in wildly uneven Berlinale competitor Disco Boy.

A committed, intensely physical lead performance by German actor Franz Rogowski (recently seen in Ira Sachs’ Passages), luminous cinematography courtesy of ace DP Helene Louvart, and stirring electronic music by composer Vitalic all come together to make this a sensuous, striking film experience. But, yeesh, that script by director-screenwriter Giacomo Abbruzzese is a mess — a lumpy mix of silly supernatural elements and indigestible arthouse pretension, all garnished with an outright steal from Claire Denis’ infinitely superior 1999 French Foreign Legion-feature. Beau Travail. But by all means, you might as well steal from the best.

Disco Boy

The Bottom Line

Claire Denis called: She wants her dance-climax back.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Franz Rogowski, Morr Ndiaye, Laëtitia Ky, Leon Lucev, Matteo Olivetti, Robert Wieckiewicz, Michal Balicki
Director/screenwriter: Giacomo Abbruzzese

1 hour 31 minutes

Rogowski’s Aleksei is first met traveling to Poland from Belarus on the pretense of going to a soccer game with his friend Mikhail (Michel Balicki), the two of them full of laddish enthusiasm and daring-do. But while trying to illegally cross the border, marked by a river, into Germany, things go wrong and only Aleksei makes it to France. Judging by his 1,000-meter stares into the distance, he will never be the same — but if he makes it through the training for the Legion and survives five years with the forces, his reward will be a French passport, no questions asked.

A good-sized chunk of time is then taken up with somewhat boilerplate training montages as we watch Aleksei and his comrades get covered in mud and push their bodies to the edge of endurance while a sergeant shouts as them. It all could just as easily have been cut and pasted from countless other films about soldiers at bootcamp, except that Vitalic electronic-dance-music score makes it all feel a bit more 21St-century.

Meanwhile, down in the Niger Delta, charismatic rebel Jomo (newcomer Morr Ndiaye, who hails from Gambia originally) is commanding a unit that is resisting the forcible seizure of land by petrochemical companies, although the exact nature of the conflict isn’t explained terribly. well An opening sequence that pans over a room full of sleeping bodies suggests that some of the action may be taking place in a dream world. It’s hard to tell, and one gets the impression that Abbruzzese, making his feature debut with this after a number of shorts, is happy to let things stand shrouded in mystery.

In any case, Jomo’s one golden-colored eye rhymes with that of his sister Udoka (artist Laëtitia Ky), and the two siblings share a near psychic connection. That perhaps accounts for how, in the latter half of the film, Udoka and Aleksei find each other in a Paris nightclub after he and Jomo have a brutal confrontation in yet another river.

There’s certainly something evocative about the way Abbruzzese films the rivers in Poland, Niger and Paris, marshy locales where the waters of history wash characters like the aforementioned together in its swirl. There’s clearly a deep well of sympathy for these trauma-afflicted people, from both Eastern Europe and Africa, who find themselves washed up on opposing sides in conflicts that ultimately benefit only the rich. But they all feel more like emblems rather than characters, even Aleksei.

At least Rogowski and Ky are expressive enough dancers to add a bit of emotional ballast through their use of movement, but that’s not really enough to ground the movie for viewers expecting something meatier. At least Louvart’s jewel-bright, saturated cinematography is consistently dazzling, even if feels a bit like a fashion film with documentary elements.

Full credits

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (competition)
Cast: Franz Rogowski, Morr Ndiaye, Laëtitia Ky, Leon Lucev, Matteo Olivetti, Robert Wieckiewicz, Michal Balicki
Production companies: Films Grand Huit, Dugong Films, Panache Productions, Donten & Lacroix, Division
Director/screenwriter: Giacomo Abbruzzese
Producers: Lionel Massol, Pauline Seigland
Co-producers: Giulia Achilli, Marco Alessi, André Logie, Gaëtan David, Maria Blicharska, Arno Moria
Director of photography: Helene Louvart
Production designer: Ester Mysius
Costume designer: Pauline Jacquard, Marina Monge
Editors: Fabrizio Federico, Ariane Boukerche, Giacomo Abbruzzese
Music: Vitalic
Sales: Charades

1 hour 31 minutes

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