Starring: Pierre Brasseur, Ligia Branice, Guy Saint-Jean
Director: Walerian Borowczyk
Walerian Borowczyk’s first live-action feature is a study of limbo. It introduces us to a world that has become stuck. Cut off from outside influences after a catastrophe, the Isle of Goto is a moribund totalitarian state slowly winding down into decay. There’s a sense that everyone is going through the motions, keeping up appearances: executions take place on the same stage that is used for (even more excruciating) musical entertainments, some of the jobs people do seem meaningless and ceremonial rather than serving any actual purpose. Even the alphabet seems to have gotten stuck. All names begin with the letter “G”: the governor of Goto is Goto III (Pierre Brasseur), his young wife is called Glossia (Ligia Branice). Teaching her to ride is Gono (Jean-Pierre Andreani), a handsome young officer, and watching on enviously is the fly-catcher Grozo (Guy Saint-Jean). What can possibly jolt the Isle out of its state of ossification?
Love can, or at least lust. Glossia and Gono are sweethearts and hope to escape the island via boat to an uncertain future. Meanwhile, Grozo wants Glossia for himself and plots everyone’s downfall.
Shot in a disused factory in stark black-and-white, Goto, Isle of Love is the bleakest of Borowczyk’s feature films. The story unfolds in a po-faced absurdist idiom (not unlike Alain Robbe-Grillet’s L’Homme qui ment), and It’s a movie of uncompromisingly hard surfaces: looming brick walls, grimy concrete floors, industrial metalwork. What brings it to life is the attention Borowczyk pays to this scrapyard of a society, little details like the traps that Grozo uses for catching flies (fabricated by Borowczyk himself), the chute for disposing of bodies, or the ratty Victorian hand-me-downs in which the female characters mill about (the men dress like convicts).
It’s a showcase for Borowczyk’s eccentric compositions. Scenes are shot straight on, in a pitiless, shadowless light, and with long lenses that flatten perspective, pushing characters back against those ugly brick walls as though for execution by firing squad. Yet ironically, it’s when Borowczyk loosens his own aesthetic slightly that the film flares into excitement – the scene, for instance, when Goto and Glossia go for an ill-fated excursion to the beach; or the one where Goto, peering through opera glasses, catches sight of Glossia rolling on a haystack, naked from the waist down, with Gono; or another where Grozo is haring after Glossia up a staircase.
Goto, Isle of Love is an oddball film, but clearly the work of a major director, and its exploration of the graphic properties of black-and-white is masterly. It also gave Borowczyk’s wife, Ligia Branice, perhaps her best role. The artist Craigie Horsfield, in his very thoughtful 8-minute introduction, points out that that the film recycles many images from Borowczyk’s animated shorts and in some ways can be seen as a culmination of his ’60s career. It’s also worth noting that Pierre Brasseur, as Goto, looks oddly like Borowczyk himself. Perhaps the film had a personal meaning for the director; was he portraying himself as a kind of tin-pot Prospero, finally letting go of the themes and motifs that he had been holding onto for a decade?
The restoration of Goto, Isle of Love was the subject of a Kickstarter campaign. This 2K transfer from a 35mm finegrain positive (and other elements) is slightly speckly, but is otherwise very clean, with a nice depth to some of its tableaux. It comes with a 21-minute “making of”, with stories of Borowczyk painting the set with a clothes brush but saying little to the actors (by the time he got to The Beast, this had changed and you get the impression he would hardly stop talking to them). There are tales of Ligia’s challenging personality, and camera operator Noel Very talks interestingly about how he enlarged the set by taking photographs of brick walls and then blowing them up into a 12-foot tall print.
In addition, there’s also a 13-minute extra about Borowczyk’s “sound sculptures”, contraptions built out of wood that can be made to rattle, groan and go boink. Among other things, the man was a DIY genius, apparently.
Following their limited edition box set, Arrow have released five Walerian Borowczyk titles on Blu-ray: The Beast, Immoral Tales, Blanche, Goto Isle of Love and The Short Films & Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal.