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“I like films that give you space, space to see, to think” — Giacomo Abbruzzese talks Disco Boy

6 min read

is a film of unnatural binaries that encourages us to find empathy for those who would usually be on the opposite side to us. Following Aleksei (Franz Rogowski) we get a peek into life in the French Foreign Legion as a soldier who also happens to be a dancer. Comparisons to Beau Travail are naturally made from its title alone, but they follow Disco Boy throughout its narrative whether intentional or not.

Its UK theatrical release comes after garnering modest acclaim from its festival run, winning the Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution at last year's Berlin International Film Festival. FILMHOUNDS had the opportunity to speak with first-time director about his ambitious debut, and where it sits in today's world.

As a first-time feature director, Disco Boy seems to be quite an ambitious project. It must have been a difficult pitch?

It was a very long ride, it took me more than ten years — changing three French producers, and finding coproducers in three more countries. When I found all the financing possible for this kind of film a first feature and an art-house film — I had a budget that looked very good to me. It wasn't actually enough for the kind of film I wanted to make, though. No first assistant or line producer with any experience wanted to make the film. Everybody said that the film was impossible, that we needed at least a million more… We ended up making the film in only 32 days and it was exhausting and horrible! There was practically no margin for error. I lost seven kilos, but I took them back during editing.

Franz Rogowski's performance as Aleksei is great, it reminded me of his character from Passages. How does it feel for you to direct an actor who seems to be so well-tuned to a character you've written?

Franz was my first choice from the beginning. On a production/financing level, it was not a very pragmatic choice — we had no co-production with Germany and Franz wasn't a well-known actor like today, so it had no impact on the financing of the film. It was a totally artistic choice. I knew it was the perfect one for Aleksei. Franz is somebody who acts with his full body, and as a director, you can work with him as a sculptor. We spent a lot of time talking about how this character would walk, stand, and drink. Also, he has a very particular body that carries a memory. It's important for a silent character like Aleksei. I needed to create something magnetic, like a dolmen, that can hypnotize you.

Because of its subject matter and some of the narrative direction towards the end, it's hard not to compare Disco Boy to Beau Travail. Was that ever in your mind during production?

It's funny because when I wrote Disco Boy, I had never watched Beau Travail. But when I was pitching the film on the market, some producers told me, “Ah, what an homage to Beau Travail!” But I had actually never seen it. I only knew and loved Trouble Every Day by Claire Denis. So, I asked myself, should I see it or not?

In the end, I saw it a month before the shooting, and I was very impressed that both of us saw the potential of a dancer inside a soldier. But my core inspiration was a guy I met in my region in the south of Italy, in a club called the Divinae Folie. A dancer who before was a soldier. Indeed, he was in the Italian army, but then I asked myself which army would I be interested in shooting. And immediately I thought about the French Foreign Legion, for its huge iconic and epic potential. My inspirations were more from literature, like Heart of Darkness by Conrad, Journey to the End of the Night by Céline or a little book, I Killed, written by Blaise Cendras, a legionary who lost his right hand, learned to write with this left one and then became a writer.

Would you mind expanding on that part about the soldier who'd become a dancer a little? Because I think it's something you can see in the rest of the film outside of just the character himself — there are a lot of opposites that are brought together in the same space.

After I met this former soldier in a club as a dancer, I was very surprised. It sounds like an oxymoron. But then after thinking about it, I realised how those two apparently far universes have some common points. In particular — a sense of choreography and a sense of discipline. Also, both the dancer and the soldier, somehow need to arrive at the end of the day totally exhausted. It's often a physical and psychological need. I don't know if this idea reverberates in the film, but Disco Boy is built with a schema of broken symmetries, on a narrative and on a visual level. Furthermore, Aleksei and Jomo (Morr Ndiaye) are totally far, a mercenary and a revolutionary, both had to go through violence to survive, to dream of a better life. They are cursed by the same tragedy.

The way that the French Foreign Legion are portrayed almost feels dystopian at points — was that intentional?

In general, also in my short films, I never was interested in the thing for the thing in a naturalistic portrait. I like to start from the document and then go through abstraction. I think cinema interests me when it creates a universe that is slightly different from ours, but that reverberates in it and helps to think about our condition.

I try to include the invisible and the dream into the reality of a film.

I think my favourite element of the film is that we're allowed to reach our own conclusions about what's going on — we're never explicitly told what to think or feel. Have you come across any interpretations of Disco Boy that have surprised you?

I like films that give you space, space to see, to think. I don't like films that treat the viewers as Pavlov's dogs. Honestly, almost all the interpretations of the film were totally legitimate for me. Only in a few cases, some people who were maybe less used to getting information through images instead of dialogue were a bit lost in the third part of the film. For example, some viewers didn't notice that Jomo and Udoka (Laetitia Ky) have two different eye colours and that in the end Aleksei also has this heterochromia

Watching this from a British perspective — it's interesting because we've just been through Brexit, and the topic of freedom of movement is such a prominent thing in our media. It feels as if Disco Boy was deliberately made as part of that conversation even though it doesn't really have anything to do with it. Was telling the story from two very different perspectives a deliberate idea to make this a universal commentary?

I wrote the first treatment of Disco Boy more than ten years ago, and there was already a Belarussian legionnaire, a Nigerian eco-terrorist, the main narration was the same. But somehow all this became even more pertinent and contemporary when the movie was released — people were seeing references to the war in Ukraine, to the war in Gaza, in Italy about some rave restrictions. You told me now about Brexit and freedom of movement.

I think that I kept the desire for this film because it was abstract enough to be universal and out of time. It deals with some pulsions that are eternal and, at the same time, I think a war film narrated from the two perspectives was missing, without any rhetoric. We live in a very complex world where narrations are more and more polarized, with finally little place for debate. In cinema, the archetype of this is the last Top Gun —the enemy doesn't have a nationality, doesn't have a face, no voice, it's totally dehumanised. So, it's very easy to desire his annihilation. But if you see under the balaclava, there is always a story, a human.

Has the experience of making and releasing Disco Boy, particularly as a first feature film, informed anything that you're working on now?

I'm finishing the screenplay of my next film, which is about the twin brother of Disco Boy. I had the idea of the two films in the same period and I carried them for a very long time. Both are a kind of diptych about dance, the body, and war. But the two stories are very different. Maybe also this one it's a broken symmetry!

 

Disco Boy is currently in select cinemas.