It won a Silver Bear in Berlin for “outstanding artistic contribution,” whatever that means, so somebody must have considered the bizarre curiosity Disco Boy worth sinking some money into for an understandably limited New York run. They were wrong. I seriously doubt if more than ten people will bother to check this one out, but since it stars Germany’s Franz Rogowski, hot on the heels of inexplicably and undeservedly winning the 2023 Best Actor award from the New York Film Critics Circle for an obscurity called Passages, I guess it’s worth mentioning.
DISCO BOY ★ (1/4 stars)
In Passages, he played a “lost” bisexual loner who cannot commit to a relationship with a partner from either sex. In the genre-defying Disco Boy, he tries to find a new identity as a member of the French Foreign Legion but fails. In the end, he becomes a “disco boy”, broke and without a passport, with his future in limbo, living illegally and dancing half-naked in a seedy Paris nightclub. It’s a debut feature by director Giacomo Abbruzzese, who displays a fondness for odd camera angles and an abhorrent disregard for narrative coherence. Rogowski plays an undocumented immigrant from Belaurus named Aleksei who arrives in France after an arduous journey from Poland, seeking refuge from oppression, but all he has is a three-day tourist visa. His best friend and traveling companion drowns on the way and now, with no money, identification, or legal papers of any kind, Aleksei is lonely, terrified and desperate. The Foreign Legion will welcome anyone from anywhere, regardless of what kind of trouble they’re in, so he enlists with nothing to offer but courage, a willingness to take risks, and some basic French he learned from the movies. After following him through a rigid training program, the film then moves to Nigeria, where the local rebels are fighting to save their people from slavery and political corruption at the hands of foreigners. The ensuing battle sequences are filmed in ultra-violet light, with pieces of bodies highlighted in red, making it impossible to see who is fighting whom and for whatever reason. A lot of people die in the escalating violence, and you never know who they are, while Aleksei is plagued by compassion, resisting orders to protect women and children, taking the time to bury his victims, and risking his future career as a soldier. It’s routine war footage, except you never know who anyone is or what side they’re on.
When the soldiers go to Paris on leave, the girls and the discos are equally routine, but more fun than the front lines and Aleksei doesn’t have to wonder about things like motives. Everyone is there for the same reason—money. The lecture to the men when they’re standing at attention is unconvincing: “In war, we are the peace. In disorder, we are the light. In doubt, we are the reason.” The Legion, his brigade is told, is your new birth. The Legion is your only family. The movie doesn’t do a very forceful job of proving the words or making them come true. Aleksei gets it for a while, but he likes discos better—and the rock music that goes with them. It is here that the film introduces two peripheral characters: an exotic dancer named Manuela and Jomo, a Nigerian terrorist fighting to help his fellow natives in the Niger Delta survive. From the jungles of war to the nightlife of Paris after midnight, Udoka (played by Laetitia Ky) and Jomo (Moor Ndiaye) become objects of obsession in parallel stories to Aleksei’s struggle, and their destinies merge across borders as they try in their distinctly different ways to forge new identities. Eventually, Aleksei’s dream of redemption as a Legionnaire fails, loftier ideals are abandoned, and hope for the future is symbolized by the cacophony of music. He’s a disco boy, at last, and for the first time in the movie, he faces the camera and smiles.
This conclusion is too cynical to make me smile, too. Rogowski’s performance is too focused on understatement to make much of an impact. The writing is too vague, the direction too deliberately avoids any commitment to coherence, and if there is a deeper meaning in Disco Boy than what is seen on the screen at any given time, it eludes me totally.