Italian director Giacomo Abbruzzese makes a really stylish debut with Disco Boy, a visually thrilling, ambitious and distinctly freaky adventure into the heart of imperial darkness, or into something else entirely: the heart of an alternative reality, or a transcendent new self. This is bold film-making: a movie that wants to dazzle you with its standalone setpieces, but also to carry you along with its storytelling.
Franz Rogowski, a German actor who always brings a compelling sort of chemical instability to his films (like a piece of smoking sodium exposed to the air), here plays Aleksei, a guy from Belarus who has arrived in Poland with his buddy Mikhail (Michal Balicki) and a bunch of other Belarus nationals on a short tourist visa, supposedly to see a football match. But first chance they get, these two sneak off the bus, hitch a lift from a friendly truck driver heading west and then get into France, a terrifyingly dangerous and illegal journey across water which is to have an eerie echo with Aleksei’s professional life. Meanwhile, in a parallel universe – in Nigeria in fact – Jomo (Morr Ndiaye) is a charismatic guerrilla fighter who with his sister Udoka (Laetitia Ky), leads an insurgent paramilitary group in the Niger Delta: the two have a strange identifying mark: different coloured eyes.
Utterly alienated from his homeland, Aleksei dreams of joining the French Foreign Legion and becoming a French citizen. He and Mikhail idolise France, yearning for “Bordeaux” and the “vache qui rit”; he tells the Legion recruiting sergeant that he learned French from the movies. After a brutal training period supervised by his deadpan commanding officer Paul (Leon Lucev), Aleksei takes part in a terrifying sortie into the Niger Delta, to rescue French hostages being held by Jomo and Udoka.
Dynamically shot, sometimes in the infrared of the legionnaires’ night-sights, this sequence becomes something like a hallucinatory nervous breakdown for Aleksei. And back in Paris, with his victorious buddies, it isn’t so much that he is overwhelmed with imperial guilt but ecstatically infected by the existence of that other person with whom the cosmos brought him into contact. As for Jomo, he once mused on what he would have been had he been born into the prosperous white developed world. Perhaps he would have been a dancer, a “disco boy”, an idea which gains its own kind of mysterious reality simply by being said out loud by Jomo, a spore of existential possibility, and then carried to France in the host of Aleksei.
Any movie about the French Foreign Legion might find itself being compared to Claire Denis’ classic Beau Travail with its ambiguous reverence for men’s bodies; perhaps Abbruzzese has taken something from Denis, but perhaps also from Gaspar Noé or Nicolas Winding Refn in the sense of confrontational spectacle and narcosis. The electronic score by Vitalic AKA Pascal Arbez-Nicolas) throbs in its own incantatory trance and Hélène Louvart’s cinematography is a thing of beauty. It’s quite a trip.