Walerian Borowczyk, 1968
Starring: Pierre Brasseur, Ligia Branice, Jean-Pierre Andréani
On the island of Goto, the few remaining survivors of an apocalyptic event exist under the crushing rule of their King, Goto III, and his military society. His daily entertainments include watching executions and punishing the islanders for the slightest of infractions. Meanwhile, his beautiful young wife, Glossia, is having an affair with her riding instructor, who she is planning to run away with. But an ambitious man who barely escapes execution worms his way into Goto III’s good graces and begins to set in a motion a crude plan to claim the tiny empire for himself.
Goto, Island of Love was Borowczyk’s second feature film and his first live action effort, which was made ten years after he relocated from Poland to Paris, but Goto exists in a realm all its own. Like his follow up, Blanche, this is a pre-Industrial world with both medieval and fantastic elements. Though nothing supernatural occurs, this universe hovers on the border of the surreal, partly thanks to a stark, gray landscape contrasted with Borowczyk’s obsessive attention to detail. If I had to compare it to anything, it would probably be to the disoriented later works of Buñuel or Fellini. Goto does have a concrete storyline, but it is told unconventionally with plenty of surreal trappings and bizarre misnomers.
Admittedly, Goto was not what I was first expecting, but it’s grown on me with time. Borowczyk’s first three films are all personal, if somewhat abstruse works that revolve around an absurd, central marital relationship. While the animated couple in Mr. and Mrs. Kabal’s Theatre are comically and somewhat cruelly mismatched, Goto and Blanche provide more serious, tragic examples of the same theme. Older men, corrupted and befuddled by their own power, are married to lovely younger women — both played by Borowczyk’s own younger wife, the distractingly beautiful Ligia Branice.
And unlike Borowczyk’s later films, there is nothing overtly sexual about Goto. There are some erotic elements, but mostly the characters are strangled by a claustrophobic sense of repressed desire. Glossia longs to escape with the handsome Gono (Jean-Pierre Andréani of The Story of O), while the slimy Grozo (Guy Saint-Jean of Shock Treatment) lusts after Glossia. Goto (the wonderful Pierre Brasseur of Eyes without a Face and Children of Paradise), meanwhile, is blunt and childish, treating Glossia as a possession rather than a source of sexual interest. There is a particularly heart-breaking moment when Goto and Glossia escape the daily squalor to go to the beach. She had been hiding a row boat on the shore, hoping to use it to escape with her lover, but Goto idly pushes it out to sea where it rapidly sinks. Shattered that her means of escape is certainly impossible, she still shows her husband a sort of maternal tenderness when he falls down in the water and becomes distraught.
Borowczyk proves his skill as an avant-garde filmmaker quite early on here, particularly with the sense that Goto’s themes of betrayal and tragic love are neither more nor less important — nor more or less interesting —than the overarching story about totalitarian repression. It is easy to see why Goto was banned in Poland and why, if Borowczyk had remained in his home country he wouldn’t have survived long as a filmmaker. The fetid island is populated with mud, filth, and insects. Grozo is the royal flycatcher (and boot-cleaner) who uses his repressed intellect and sense of ambition to device clever insect traps, proving that even though the community has limited technology and seemingly few private or public amusements, it is mostly from lack or caring or trying. There is a sense of paralysis, that things and people are frozen in time, and like Borowczyk’s short films, there is the sense that objects, set pieces, and animals nearly overshadow their human counterparts.
This Kafkaesque hell is not a prison for innocent men caught up in an oppressive, infernal bureaucracy, but its totalitarian, military-based regime is a breeding ground for ugliness and moral deterioration. While punishment — execution in particular — is treated a state sport, the only art practiced on the island seems to be voyeurism. There is the sense of being watched not only by Goto’s military government, but by other citizens, and Borowczyk gives the impression that Grozo will be victorious because more than any other character, he excels at watching, prying, and invading space.
Goto, Island of Love was recently the subject of a successful Kickstarter campaign, where it was expensively and painstaking repaired to its full glory. Though there is an earlier Cult Epics release, the Arrow restoration makes that almost offensively unnecessary and if you’re going to see it, pick up the absolutely fantastic Arrow disc. It includes some great special features, such as an introduction from artist Craigie Horsfield, The Concentration Universe which is a series of interviews, and the documentary The Profligate Door. It’s wonderful that this important, but oddly ignored film has finally seen the light of day and it comes highly recommended.