Giacomo Abbruzzese makes his directorial debut with Disco Boy, a stylistic tour de force that explores the intersections of identity, migration, and neo-colonialism. We follow Aleksei, a Belarusian migrant who joins the French Foreign Legion in pursuit of citizenship, only to cross paths with Jomo, a Nigerian freedom fighter battling the remnants of empire.
Anchored by German actor Franz Rogowski’s intense performance as the taciturn Aleksei, the film traces his journey across continents, shedding nationalities and selves along the way. Laetitia Ky and Morr Ndiaye draw us into Jomo and Adoka’s world in Nigeria, grounded by the rhythms of traditional dance. As these stories collide in the battlefield and the nightclub, the characters discover their shared victimhood.
Shooting on location and drawing on a hypnotic electronic score, director Abbruzzese announces himself with visual swagger. Disco Boy owes an open debt to Claire Denis’ Beau Travail in its muscular imagery and post-colonial concerns. Yet with playful genre mashups and a trancelike atmosphere straight from the underground club, Abbruzzese stakes out his own distinct corner of arthouse cinema.
At heart, Disco Boy is a mood piece and a sensory experience. But powerful performances and a bold merging of style and substance ensure that this is no empty provocation from a freshman filmmaker. Abbruzzese may be stepping into the spotlight, but he arrives with his own moves.
Painting with Light and Dark
From its opening frames, cinematographer Hélène Louvart and director Abbruzzese plunge us into a neon fever dream, bathing faces in crimson light and city streets in uncanny hues. As Aleksei journeys across the shadowy margins of Europe, the camera caresses his features, highlighting his alienation. Long tracking shots follow him through the wilderness, the bootcamp assault course, the strobe-lit discotheque.
Fans of Claire Denis will catch echoes of Beau Travail in the muscular male bodies parading through camp and battlefield, backlit by blazing sun or shrouded in darkness. But where Denis opted for elegant restraint, Abbruzzese embraces lurid style. An infrared combat sequence descends into chaotic abstraction, while the saturated colors of a Nigerian ritual dance gleam with cryptic symbolism.
Abbruzzese wields these full-throttle visuals in service of his hot-blooded themes. As identities fracture and worlds collide, style and substance fuse. When Aleksei comes face-to-face with Jomo across continents and conflicts, they face each other in a tracking shot of pure cinematic choreography, the camera caressing their features as recognition alters them irreversibly.
Some critics may chafe at the director’s brash panache, accusing him of putting flash over coherence. But few could argue that this self-assured style lacks purpose or vision. In the hands of a master cinematographer like Louvart, dazzling technique heightens the film’s dreamlike intensity rather than obscuring it. If Abbruzzese’s narrative control occasionally falters in this ambitious debut, his flawless command of image remains absolute from first frame to last.
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Searching for Self
Divided into three distinct acts, Disco Boy’s narrative mirrors its protagonist’s fractured identity. As Aleksei sheds names and nationalities, the story’s shape shifts around him. Realism gives way to surrealism, chapter divisions suggesting the porous borders between selves and states.
In Alecsei’s grim odyssey and Jomo’s righteous crusade, Abbruzzese traces the scars left by Europe’s imperial past. Yet the film resists easy hero/villain dichotomies. Jomo fights a just cause with brutal tactics, while Aleksei’s quest for security leads him to enable oppression. Their fatal confrontation offers no simple answers, only victims of history.
Identity proves fluid, formed by random chance as much as personal agency. Aleksei’s rootless wandering leads him to don the Legion uniform, while Jomo muses he may have been a dancer in another life. Yet fate also mocks free will. Uprooted and adrift, the characters grasp at community through the tribal pulse of dancefloors, bootcamp barracks and guerilla hideouts.
If the plot occasionally loses momentum, Abbruzzese ensures his big themes hit home through pure sensory power. As image, sound and action fuse in trancelike sequences, we inhabit his dislocated protagonists. Setpieces like the firelit ritual dance or infrared combat scene capture their plight beyond words. The director’s impatient, club-fueled energy mirrors their hunger for ecstatic release.
Not all critics embraced Abbruzzese’s more cryptic plot turns, finding the third act departure into arthouse surrealism too opaque. But this closing impressionistic flourish cements Disco Boy as a cry from the heart. Through lurid style and electronic fury, Abbruzzese forcefully conveys his characters’ search for identity, community and escape from a cruelly indifferent world.
As the taciturn Aleksei, Franz Rogowski delivers a physically transfixing performance that holds the film together. With limited dialogue, the German actor relies on his expressive features and sinuous movement to convey emotional torment. Haunted eyes and tense posture communicate Aleksei’s alienation, while brief glimpses of bliss on the dancefloor suggest the ecstatic escape he craves.
In his breakout role, Senegalese first-timer Morr Ndiaye brings charismatic grace to Nigerian rebel leader Jomo. Handsome and heroic yet brutalized by loss, he projects poetic anguish in speech and movement. Smoothly oscillating from playful charm to righteous anger, Ndiaye makes Jomo’s contradictions wrenchingly human.
While more cryptic in her supporting turn, Laetitia Ky radiates otherworldly intensity as Jomo’s sister Adoka. With piercing eyes and ritual body art, she becomes Aleksei’s ghostly muse. During their haunting nightclub encounter, her movements echo Jomo’s proud, pained spirit – a reminder that history’s violence inflicts wounds across continents.
Through disturbing lyricism rather than sentimental manipulation, Abbruzzese draws out committed performances aligned with his uncompromising vision. His leads mesmerize with physicality and presence, wordlessly communicating yearning. While supporting players like Leon Lucev provide sharply drawn vignettes of military machismo, the expressive features of Rogowski, Ndiaye and Ky linger long after the film’s finale.
Vitalic’s pulsing electro score propels the action with ominous momentum, establishing a mood of nerve-shredding intensity. Throbbing synths and abrasive beats echo the protagonists’ alienation, while also evoking the primal pulse of underground club culture.
As Aleksei journeys across shadowy cityscapes, the music’s dark glamour heightens his sense of defiant solitude. Later, the metallic scrape of military drill clashes jarringly with tender snatches of Edith Piaf, suggesting the Legion’s brutality churning beneath French romanticism.
The score builds steadily to ecstatic crescendos during the trance-like dance sequences. As Jomo’s rebels whirl in hypnotic lockstep around the bonfire, the accompanying beats reach transcendent, orgiastic heights. Back in the disco’s strobe-lit cathedral, thundering electronics and ghostly vocals plunge us into Aleksei’s tortured headspace, violence and victimhood merging as bodies move in menacing harmony.
With sophisticated melding of sound and vision, Abbruzzese and composer Vitalic forge an ominous audio atmosphere that envelops us. Their interplay of musical textures deftly punctuates the protagonists’ compulsive quest for fleeting collective euphoria amidst permanent isolation.
For all its flashes of brilliance, Disco Boy remains a flawed gem. Abbruzzese’s grip on narrative sometimes slackens under the weight of ambition, and thematic subtlety occasionally gives way to blunt spectacle.
Yet as a sensory experience, his debut dazzles more often than it falters. Louvart’s limpid cinematography and Vitalic’s nervous score reflect the director’s immersive vision. While the script struggles to synthesize the stories’ disconnected strands, standout sequences like the desert raid and climactic dance floor encounter showcase a nascent master.
And in Franz Rogowski’s haunted central performance, the film finds its anchor. His wordless anguish holds our gaze when interest lags elsewhere. Able support from charismatic newcomers like Morr Ndiaye suggests Abbruzzese’s keen eye for talent matches his technical flair.
For all its postmodern flourishes, Disco Boy remains rooted in raw passion — an electrifying cry from the margins. If Abbruzzese streamlines his wilder instincts in future, he could become a defining voice of his generation.
Those seeking cerebral engagement may prefer more polished social commentary. But viewers hungry for sheer sensorial cinema will find Disco Boy’s lurid grip hard to shake. Dazzling us with style, thrilling us with substance, this slick calling card heralds a provocateur hungry to start the dance.
Dynamic yet uneven, Giacomo Abbruzzese’s Disco Boy announces an audacious new talent, if not a fully-formed one. Carried by sensory flair and Franz Rogowski's magnetic performance, this splendid mess of a debut glimmers with moments of greatness - even as its reach occasionally exceeds its grasp.
- Visual flair and confident direction
- Propulsive electronic score
- Franz Rogowski's intense lead performance
- Strong turns from supporting cast
- Immersive sequences and set-pieces
- Ambitious themes related to identity and migration
- Uneven narrative cohesion
- Heavy-handed messaging
- Plot loses momentum at times
- Final act confounding and opaque