Parochial Hierarchy in Walerian Borowczyk's 'Goto, Isle of Love'

Shot in lustrous black and white, Borowczyk’s film straddles an impossible line between grim drama and ramshackle fantasy.

Goto, Isle of Love

Director: Walerian Borowczyk
Cast: Guy Saint-Jean, Ligia Branice, Pierre Brasseur
Distributor: Olive Films
Release date: 2017-04-25

The late Walerian Borowczyk’s first full-length non-animated feature was the 1969 surrealist political fable Goto, Isle of Love (better known by its French title, Goto, l'île d’amour). A romantic tale of strange casuistry and rural totalitarianism, Goto heralded a significant talent in European cinema. Borowczyk’s style was one that loyally followed the precedents of such luminaries as Jean Cocteau, who himself orchestrated an operatic form of surrealism, forging a new visual language that was entirely his own.

A Polish expat living in France, Borowczyk had plenty of gristle to chew on when it came to political matters. In the poetic flushes of Goto, we witness the underlying censure of Eastern European politics, even if they are stretched to unrecognizable lengths within the stationary vision of French surrealism. Borowczyk didn’t have, exactly, the same hassles with Poland’s political authorities as did his fellow filmmaker Andrzej Żuławski (also a Polish expat living in France), but the nuisances of creative interference seem to fester in the narrative of Goto, the desire for love and dominance played out under the artful sequences of painterly stagecraft.

On a nearly barren island named Goto, somewhere in an undisclosed part of the world, there exists a colony whose population was considerably diminished by a tsunami, which claimed the lives of their many reigning forefathers. A makeshift government has since been implemented, now ruled by the ruthless king, Goto (of whom the island is named after). Goto has instated a Roman empire ideology of decree and authority, where perpetrators of crime are condemned to fight one another in the communal house before they are publically executed.

One such criminal is Grozo, a common thief who is condemned to death but is pardoned when he wins the sympathy of the queen, Glossia. Goto, the king, takes a liking to Grozo and makes him the island’s official boot-cleaner and fly-catcher. Grozo is grateful for the pardon, but deeply resentful of his position as a lowly peasant. Moreover, he secretly pines for the queen. When Grozo takes up his position as fly-catcher, he slowly plots to do away with those around him who stand between he and Glossia -- including the king.

Shot in lustrous black and white, Borowczyk’s film straddles an impossible line between grim drama and ramshackle fantasy. Neither here nor there, Goto seems to espouse the ambiguities surrounding political drive which, in this case, are born from erotic proclivities. Every now and then, that genre-dividing line shifts from one predisposition to another, becoming a wavering, uncertain treatise on public dissention. Characters on the island of Goto are lost in the dismally cold grey of their anonymous universe; they are either the rubble-shifting makers of their collective monarchy or hapless victims who, too easily, fall by the wayside. Between the apostasy and the existential musings that seem to have shaped this island’s culture of psychology, there's the stone-cold air of desperation, an ever-pervasive fear that victimhood will be the first and last precedent of death.

Grozo (Guy Saint-Jean), Glossia (Ligia Branice) and Goto (Pierre Brasseur)

In this romantic but doleful rut, Borowczyk seeks to mark out the moral high ground embodied in any number of the citizens who make up Goto’s population. Grozo is, in fact, a sweet-natured man whose moral corruption is brought about through the soul-shattering grief of an idle and listless life. Glossia, trapped in a marriage to a king she secretly despises, finds respite in her liaisons with Gono, the stablehand of Goto. In a weird and voyeuristic framing of closely observed lives, Borowczyk’s film is a contraption not unlike an ant farm, where its inhabitants are locked within a perimeter of space; as tensions rise, Goto’s residents turn on one another in the scramble for freedom or power, each one eventual prey to the ethical quandaries that lay like sand traps in their imploding society.

As if to transmit the aide-mémoires of the outer world beyond Goto, Borowczyk inserts flashes of colour throughout the charcoaled monochrome of the black and white footage; they inscribe the narrative with fey, baroque touches that evoke a now-gone era of civility and refinement. The culture on the isle of Goto is one of socialist symmetry; everyone’s name on the island begins with the letter “G”, a flatlining of human individualism that has rendered the citizens apathetically subservient to the dismantling of their personalities; it’s a subtle but pointed statement of parochial hierarchy, working on the deeper levels of emotional dramaturgy. In the rough and tattered construction of his despotic narrative, Borowczyk delivers an elegantly-wrought chamber drama, couched like a gleaming pearl in a hideous shell.

Olive Films delivers a beautiful, crisp transfer that justly captures the bizarre world of Goto and all its inhabitants. The black and white of the footage isn’t truly black and white; there's a very subtle wash of a painter’s blue, which gives the images a rather baronial look. It’s almost as though the characters had come to life from the prim sketches of a charcoal stick and, visually, it is stunning (not too surprising, since Borowczyk was a skilled painter and an award-winning animator). Sound comes through clearly and makes excellent use of Handel’s "Organ Concerto in G Minor, Op. 7, No. 5". Extras include an interview with the actor Jean-Pierre Andréani and co-writer Dominique Duvergé-Ségrétin of the film, as well as an introduction to the feature by Turner Prize nominee Craigie Horsfield. The film is in French with optional English subtitles.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.