Walerian Borowczyk’s second feature was just as original as his first. Almost entirely live action this time, it is situated on the archipelago of Goto, which has been cut off from the rest of human civilisation by a massive earthquake and has consequently developed its own arcane rules. Melancholic dictator Goto III (Pierre Brasseur) is married to the beautiful Glossia (Ligia Branice), who in turn is lusted after by the petty thief Gozo (Guy Saint-Jean) as he works his way up the hierarchy.
Goto Isle of Love (Goto l’île d’amour), made in 1968 and released the following year, was Borowczyk’s second feature. Unlike the mostly animated Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal, it is entirely live-action, though stylistically not too far removed from his animated work. It’s of that kind of fantasy which qualifies as such because it takes place in a fantasy world – one hermetically sealed from this world – though none of the events of the story are fantastic. One great example of this subtype of fantasy – a literary one – is Mervyn Peake’s Titus trilogy, particularly the first two volumes (Titus Groan, 1946; Gormenghast, 1950) which take place in the vast edificial building of Gormenghast Castle, where the inhabitants are as grotesque as the world they inhabit, though as there is no magic nothing that could not conceivably happen in this world takes place there.
And so it is with Goto, an island nation on this earth, mostly submerged after an earthquake in 1887, ruled by a succession of governors all called Goto (we’re now on the third, played by Pierre Brasseur), and where everyone has a name beginning with G. One of these is Grozo (Guy Saint-Jean), a petty thief who, spared execution, becomes Goto III’s boot-cleaner, dog-feeder and fly-catcher. Goto is married to Glossia (Ligia Branice). The royal marriage is a loveless one: Goto much prefers to watch her in the riding stables via a pair of binoculars, latest in a long line of Borowczyk voyeurs. Glossia has plans to flee the island with her riding instructor Gono (Jean-Pierre Andréani). Meanwhile Grozo becomes obsessed with Glossia and plots his path to the throne when he discovers her and Gono’s affair. If Goto’s attraction to his wife is voyeuristic, Grozo’s is fetishistic. At one point he instructs a prostitute to wear her dress while they have sex.
If this is a fantasy environment, it is an intensely detailed one. Borowczyk is a filmmaker who creates his own hermetic, intricately detailed worlds. (Other examples of this type would include Wes Anderson and, on much larger major-studio budgets, Stanley Kubrick.) Borowczyk made many of the props himself, notably the fly traps and the three-way portrait of Gotos I, II and III, and made much of the film inside Marie and Pierre Curie’s laboratory, Guy Durban’s camera drinking in the varied textures and surfaces of the walls. We never see the fortress wherein the film takes place from outside: the characters and the viewer are sealed in this world too. Goto isn’t an animated film, but in some respects it does resemble Borowczyk’s earlier work visually. Flurries of interest in 3D notwithstanding, cinema is a two-dimensional medium, though many filmmakers have tried to at least simulate the z-axis of depth by means of a moving camera. By contrast, Borowczyk keeps his camera mostly static, with the occasional pan or tilt. He shoots much of the action straight ahead, a telephoto lens reducing depth still further. The use of a handheld camera towards the end of the film becomes truly disruptive. Goto is shot in black and white, but there are six separate shots in colour, mainly for emphasis, mostly pointing up particular objects: a pair of slippered feet, a bucket of blood after an execution, meat being fed to dogs. While mixing colour and black and white is not unheard of, it’s more usual to use them for whole scenes rather than, as here, single shots. It’s something less seen later, partly because in 1968 black and white was becoming obsolescent in western commercial cinema, but Edgar Reitz was to take the technique much further in his Heimat films. Borowczyk has a fascination for objects, often pointing his camera towards a particularly intricate or interesting one while the characters in the scene are talking offscreen. At the start, an overturned chair takes his interest rather than an embracing couple. In the end, a dead body is just another object amidst several others.
Goto went some way towards establishing Borowczyk’s reputation in the West, and picked up a cult following in the UK on its release in 1969, with the novelist Angela Carter among its fans. Meanwhile, its totalitarian themes caused it to be banned in the Eastern Bloc countries and in Franco’s Spain. With the downturn in its director’s reputation, it became harder to see, and inevitably 35mm prints fell into disrepair. Some prints had the colour inserts printed in black and white. Worse still, the original negative became lost. It has had DVD releases before now, but thanks to a Kickstarter campaign (full disclosure: I contributed to it) it has now been restored in HD (2K resolution) and can be seen as closely as is now possible the way its maker intended.
1) “The Concentration Universe” (21:24) is a look back at the making of the film, which began production in Paris in 1968 just before “les événéments” of that year. If you were in any doubt about Borowczyk’s obsessive nature, you would not be after this, as that attention to details extended to Jean-Pierre Andréani’s haircut. (He also wrote the Goto National Anthem.) Interviewees are Andréani, assistant cameraman Noël Véry and camera operator Jean-Pierre Platel, all speaking in French (optional subtitles available).
2) “The Profligate Door” (13:15) looks at Borowczyk’s “sound sculptures”, often made from varnished wood without the aid of glue or nails. They are held by the museum at Annécy and our host is curator. As the soundtracks of all the films are inevitably mono, this item’s Dolby Digital 2.0 will give your setup something to play with.
3) “Introduction” (8:13) by artist and Turner Prize nominee Craigie Horsfield