news ‘Disco Boy’ Review: French Foreign Legion Drama Bluntly Portrays the Horrors of War

It might be reductive to call “Disco Boy” a kind of club kid cousin to “Beau Travail,” but the comparisons aren’t entirely off. Like Claire Denis’ Sight and Sound chart-topper, here is a tour with the French Foreign Legion, another dissection of colonial roleplaying spent among a taciturn lot who find best expression in the rhythms of the night. So let’s dispense those comparisons up front, and with a degree of military efficiency befitting both films: While director Giacomo Abbruzzese does indeed pay homage to a direct artistic forbearer, his debut film stands (and writhes and shimmies) all on its own.

Pushed and pulled by another intensely physical Franz Rogowski turn, “Disco Boy” follows a man ever on the move, a paperless migrant whose name, identity, nationality and, it seems, spiritual sense of self remain constantly in flux.

The actor enters the film as Aleksei, a Belarusian ex-con quietly carving his way through Poland en route to a better life. Why settle on France as the final destination? Well, pourquoi pas? Aleksey has picked up some rudimentary French – “From the movies,” says Rogowski, spitting out his rare lines of dialogue as if poison to be expelled post haste – but for the most part, he simply follows the lead of his more experienced travel partner, Mikhail (Michał Balicki). Yet the crossing is not without risk, and by the time our lead winds up a stray dog in Gaul, that travel companion, Mikhail is but a ghost haunting the path. He will not be the last.

Split into the three chapters with discrete aesthetic and formal approaches, and condensed into a tight 90-minutes that nevertheless covers substantial narrative ground, “Disco Boy” follows what could be called “club logic.” The three chapters introduce as many foils — thematic dance partners whose interplay and interaction with Aleksei reorient his path. By the time Mikhail gives way to an altogether different foil in Chapter Two, Aleksei himself has also changed. Awash in a destination no less hostile than the road that led there, Aleksei the migrant becomes Alex the legionnaire. And who knows, after five years of dutiful service, he might just become a French citizen.

Long before Abbruzzese opens Chapter Three on a literal dance floor, “Disco Boy” brims with sinister nocturnal energy. Whether traipsing through a Subcarpathian forest as Aleksey or submitting his body to military training as Alex, Rogowski moves to an unrelenting thrum — a low and menacing electro score supplied by French producer Vitalic. More soundscape than soundtrack, this metallic dirge plays off cinematographer Hélène Louvart’s decadent lighting schemes to set viewers on edge and replicate that initial rush of walking into a foreboding neon cathedral. Tense and mesmerized, you feel all the more alert.

Still, as an immersive visual and intellectual spectacle, the film might peak too early. With training and enlistment now complete, Chapter Two takes us into the field, on mission with Alex and his unit in the Niger Delta. For the first (and only) time, Abbruzzese’s camera leaves the lead behind, focusing instead on Jomo (Morr Ndiaye), a local insurgent leading guerilla attacks against international exploiters. He is, of course, what draws in the French unit. Would you be surprised that they side with the Big Oil exploiters?

Neither aiming for nor interested in subtlety, “Disco Boy” casts both Jomo and Alex as soldiers of fate and pawns of fortune, two sides of the same coin pulled into conflict by capital. Underscoring the blunt message with thrillingly blunt-force filmmaking, Abbruzzese orchestrates a series of raids and counter-raids with wanton flair, bathing a pivotal nighttime assault with an infrared glare that obscures predator from prey, and staging a decisive moment between Alex and Jomo on a riverbank seemingly pulled from a previous chapter. The distance between Poland and Nigeria suddenly collapsed, as if to say, wherever you go, there you are.

In that roundabout way, we find a director wrestling with that familiar and paradoxical question: How do you shoot war without glorying it? Offering his response as capstone to this lethal second act, Abbruzzese grabs a blade and simply cuts the knot. Surveying the final damage with sweeping, helicopter-mounted vistas, “Disco Boy” is unambiguous about the thrill of such military adventurism and unsparing about the awful moral toll.

Those bells continue to ring through to the end. Back in France for chapter three, and drowning his sorrows at a chic Parisian discothèque, Aleksey-cum-Alex makes a chance encounter with Adoka (Laëtitia Ky). Who is this latest dance partner? Is she a woman with ties to the Nigerian mission or a pure manifestation of a soldier’s guilt? In this more figurative back third, the distinction matters not a whit. His wider political points already emblazoned on screen, Abbruzzese moves from ‘club logic’ to dream logic, tracking the legionnaire’s final (d)evolution with a style meant to evoke that point of night when the walls of reality crumble.

Of course, elevating style as substance can be an awfully effective way to cover a narrative shrug with panache, and one can track the film as it gradually loses stamina in real time. But at a taut and elliptical ninety minutes, a couple of awkward final steps hardly feel like fatal flaws. Getting in, getting down, and getting out as style hopping sizzle reel, “Disco Boy” heralds a promising new talent who totally has the moves.

Grade: B​

“Disco Boy” premiered at the 2023 Berlin Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.