It is Walerian Borowczyk’s peculiar misfortune to have produced in The Beast (La Bête, 1975) one of the masterpieces of artful, twisted, preposterous erotica. Its success not only led him to making incompetent slop like Behind Convent Walls (Interno di un convento, 1978) and Emmanuelle V (1987): worse, it skewed his whole profile as a filmmaker, and many will view the meretricious tack available on DVD unaware, or at least disbelieving, that this was once one of the most inventive of animators.
This release of Goto, Island of Love fills in a vital, pre-erotic step in Borowczyk’s work, revealing a highly individual approach to live action as seen through the eyes of an animator. A largely immobile camera fixed head-on to flat but grimy monochrome backdrops produces boxes within which actors are pinned with absurd symmetry like displays in the cabinets, or flies in the fly-traps, that litter the ritualistic world of Goto. The cells of this world also contain, and are seen from, improbable vantage points suggestive of optical devices. Binoculars are given thematic prominence throughout, but the whole mise en scéne implies peephole and camera obscura. In the opening credits we seem to peer into the workings of a giant live-action zoetrope. The rough planks of a riding school wall fill the screen as two horses periodically circle into view. Any idea of freedom or escape is produced and framed within a space of repetitive, mechanical illusion.
As we quickly learn via a school lesson, the island itself has been closed off from the outside world since the remarkable catastrophe of 1887, which wiped out most of the population and locked the survivors into the preservation of arcane tradition, like Gormenghast rewritten by Gombrowicz. Although suitably catechistic, the lesson is illustrated by an anamorphic image of the three governors to date - Gotos I, II & III. The attic of the riding school similarly offers three disjointed and illusory views: from one side, a grassy hill sloping down into woodland; from the next, a stark quarry; from the third, the rolling waves on a rocky shore. But these vistas prove deceptive in a world that offers no escape, no distance to run into. Imagine Father Ted‘s Craggy Island as a benevolent dictatorship: Goto III frolicking on the beach in full uniform is oddly reminiscent of Bishop Len Brennan’s holiday video. His adulterous wife Glossia, a mix of Garbo gloom and Buster Keaton stiffness throughout, is more the hapless marionette than ever in rugged nature. Clearly she will never make it out to sea, and escape from the island.
Meanwhile, we follow arriviste crim Grozo’s ruthless ascent from dog-minder and fly-catcher. Scenting success, he lets out the dogs and we see them bounding through a tiny door into the light, down to the sea. The camera follows them a little way in a rare moment of exuberance, but finally leaves them in the inconsequential distance, bounded by the sea, framed by the viewfinder of the door. Grozo’s ambition has never risen higher than to be a hound with its muzzle in Glossia’s lap. Even his treason is subservient, obeisant to the machine, and his moment of success brings not even the limited freedom of a dog. He, more than anyone, is caught up in the ‘manège’; that is to say ‘riding school’, but also ‘machination’, and ‘merry-go-round’. Through the objective lens of the wryly named animator, it’s just a complicated game. Where a dictator is chosen by a round of spin-the-shoe-last, the only revolution is the turning of the machine.