Norwegian director Jorunn Myklebust Syversen has a penchant for crucial phases in young people’s lives, as well as an eye for the breakthrough actors to act out precisely that emotional cusp. In 2017, her debut feature, The Tree Feller, starred one of the most promising up and coming Norwegian stars, Benjamin Helstad. Now, her sophomore film, Disco, capitalises on the star power of doe-eyed Josefine Frida (of the TV sensation Skam) to tell the harrowing story of a champion dancer troubled by her evangelical background in a crisis of faith, when her body lets her down at the finals.
Back in 2010, Syversen made a short film called Der dunkle Mensch (The Dark Human), a mesmerising piece of video art that captures a freestyle disco dancer whirling and turning in a black box, with dark techno beats thrusting the female body back and forth as a death drive would. The short’s contained spectacle contrasts glitter costumes with macabre poeticism and sets the tone for Disco to follow up, nine years later, with a more detailed look on freestyle disco aesthetics. Mirjam (Frida) is nineteen, and a world champion. She proudly wears tons of glitter, sequined suits and sparkling crowns but the longer the camera spends lingering on her victorious face, the more her constructed world begins to weigh down. Disco unfolds in longer, static takes, to communicate the protagonist’s sense of confinement in close-ups, and counters their stillness with quick, rhythmic cuts when Mirjam is performing for the dance juries. Alternating between two distinct styles, the film’s visuals reflect the lead’s turmoil in both home and stage environments.
However, Disco transposes the contradictions inherent in flashy performance shows (such as the glitzy world of freestyle disco and all its allure) upon its character’s interior conflicts. Josefine Frida’s performance is both restrained and gullible, one which refuses psychologisation but at the same time invites the viewer into a shared world of doubt and searching. Mirjam’s stepfather is a charismatic pastor who only gets dressed to perform goodness in church and uses his family time to police her choice of clothes, trash TV intake, amounting all her struggles to a lapse of faith. Indeed, the film is more concerned about what happens to a young woman stuck between two equally isolated lifestyles that have robbed her out of a voice by claiming to bestow one instead. The film avoids condemnation in its depiction of evangelical doctrines and practices but it also doesn’t conceal the marketability and appeal they’ve put up to attract today’s youth – hipster coffee shops in the church’s lobby, pop concerts, and of course, promises of healing. By showing the overpowering presence of Pentecostal megachurches in people’s lives, as well as their successful branding techniques, targeting teenagers specifically, Syversen imbues her character study with the stinging feeling of short-lived hope.
Disco is neither a coming-of-age nor a coming-of-faith film and refuses to offer any preconceived remedies for what a lost soul should do. If anything, the protagonist’s supposed passivity can be read as a type of protest to societal regimes, which are, as always, no less performative than dance or acting. With its tangible personalised storytelling, Disco addresses themes like vulnerability, compassion, and forgiveness, better than any its own churchgoers have managed to.
Disco is available on VOD from December 1st
by Savina Petkova
Savina Petkova is a Bulgarian London-based freelance critic. In her spare time, she is a PhD candidate with a project on animal metamorphoses in contemporary European films. She lives from one film festival to the other, always on the hunt for animality, otherness, and visceral filmmaking. Savina admires bold story-telling as much as feeling-telling and defines her approach to criticism as sharp and ethically challenging. She is a regular MUBI Notebook contributor and writes for Electric Ghost Magazine, photogenie, and Girls On Tops. You can find her on Twitter @SavinaPetkova