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.

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.

RATING 9 / 10