Goto, Island of Love

Goto Island of Love
Goto, Island of Love

Camera Obscura: The Walerian Borowczyk Collection

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 8 September 2014

Distributor: Arrow Academy

Director: Walerian Borowczyk

Writer: Walerian Borowczyk

Cast: Pierre Brasseur, Ligia Branice, Jean-Pierre Andréani, Guy Saint-Jean

Original title: Goto, l’île d’amour

France 1968

93 minutes

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 review was first published in 2009 for the first UK release of Goto, Island of Love on DVD release by Nouveaux Pictures in 2009.

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.

Stephen Thomson

One thought on “Goto, Island of Love”

  1. Tragedy of the absurdity and of derision rivalling the finest Stroheim, Goto affirms itself as a capital film of the 1960s. A ‘cursed’ film, ignored outside France, madly anti-conformist in its own spectacular status that does not indulge a single moment on the petrifying freeze of the formalistic avant-garde.
    In fact, Goto represents one of the highest and ‘impossible’ synthesis in the history of cinema between the thunderous force of passion and the geometric rigour of the mise-en-sc&#232ne, between flamboyant romanticism and the surgical incisiveness of the framing, between impressions of narrative reality and gleams of visionary invention: like in Conrad’s pages, where the adventurous and concretizes experience shades into an impalpable resonance of allusiveness and a symbolic emotive magic.
    Goto is composed by 800 framings circa: fixed planes, almost claustrophobic, denying any sense of depth whatsoever. The fortress where the diabolic ascension of Grozo takes place is never entirely shown, but always framed through mazy and restricted settings, disturbing foreshortenings, decorative details and complex furnishings evoking a dusty atmosphere. It is not casual that the instrument-fetish of the story is the binocular, we find it in each of the key moments: the spectacle is IN the film, and at the same time IS the film. Through ‘treacherous’ blowups – such is the use of the winding movement of the lenses – the teeming internal life of a secret world suddenly visualizes itself in all its charming horror. For the director a ‘total’ vision of humanity is impossible: in the best case scenario one has to tagafter the significant gestures and the animal motions pulsing underneath the (self)control of the codes.
    The film is all situated in this continuum, impossible obsessive gaze, a chain of yearning impotencies defining the physical space and calibrating the moral conduct. Here the director is the sculptor of marked pulsions, amputating the literary references (Kafka in primis) in favour of a ‘call to life’ that vibrates with the fantasising power of the cinematographic sign: it is the creative energy of the author that moulds forms and faces invested by the abstract thought of the protagonists. Despite the photographic specularity unfolding, ‘life’ on the island of Goto is determined by a cluster of analogical choices operated by an invisible demiurge, that is, the director busy spying with his mind (in the camera) what the actors spy with their hearts (from their position within the frame). Poem on love, better still, apropos of love, Goto shows its suffocated and forced stirrings in fierce tragedies triggered by the lack of any horizon whatsoever but a devious and filmy rocky beach. These tragedies are nonetheless ‘observable’, reassuring, because nobody is authorized to forward besides the facts the comparison of a ‘real’ and tangible world, guaranteed as ‘apt’ to love.
    Gono and Glossia secretly plot the evasion, but that little skiff jogged by billows can only offers itself as an oneiric, visceral and irrational matter soundtracking their erotic games, clandestine and jeopardous. Goto the third, ruler of that micro fragment of world, reigns through conformism, via the fear of the future and not through terror, the latter is a circumstance that infuses into the characters the suspect of a stubborn and atrocious resignation (how actual!).
    Gotois primarily a fully sensual film. The eroticism here expressed has something savage and incoercible about it, it functions in first person as the only ‘life-giving’ and sacrilegious datum against the corporate order. The film shows, perhaps better than Tinto Brass, how eroticism is connate to the very essence of the cinematographic language, when the universal components of physical attraction are unearthed from their descriptive phenomenology thus reacquiring their rhythmic, psychological and aesthetic form, we finally experience the visual expression of passion. If eroticism is reclaiming (in order to be such) a magical warping of reality, Borowczyk’s voyeurism ‘determines’ the accidents and not merely register them; it is the poetical will of the director who wants to imagine and invent the iconographic force of love, that is, the exact opposite of the ecstatic anonymity to which that term is usually associated.
    ‘The insularity of Goto, its isolation and its spatial dimension are guarantees of its internal aperture: not only all the explored places are visible to each other, but also all the characters are replaceable, and indeed replaced: Goto the third by Grozo, Gonasta by Glossia, the old guardian by Grozo, etc.’ (Positif, n. 105, May 1969).
    A very coreographically ‘rich’ film in spite of the despoliation of the ambiences, it is as if the director had cut fragments of reality to glue them in an animation style; the set of Goto is indeed composed by diverse and unconnected places like a stage theatre, apartments to be demolished and an abandoned factory. An yet the isle of Goto does exist, its substance of rocks and blood, dreams and tenderness, metallic and carnal, game and sickness, fairy and bestial functions as an emotive whole in relation to the spectators’ luxuriation.
    Although calibrated upon intangible inner timings, the film concatenates its facts with the precision of an electronic device; inhabiting a sheer cinematic territory the film fuses the fictional and narrative effects according to its own legislated (il)logic.
    Through extreme close ups Borowczyk confers to inanimate objects a sort of operative textuality. The ideal instruments for such ‘animation’ from objective to living are – very (s)light zooms and the alternate montage – transmitting the impression of progressive oneirical inserts. Like the Dobermans, the pupils of Goto look alike, in their prisoner (or guardian?) uniforms, they are bound to repeat Grozo’s parable: to spy, to replace, to kill or to execute. Nonetheless the gloomy anti-dictatorial allegory cannot be exclusively read in its libertarian signification; in the central sequence of the film – when the rulers take a stroll by the sea – the moral doubt is reclaimed thus corroding with a blow of blind passion the previously suggested insurrectional ethic. The love and faith of the husband are not altered by the discovery of the skiff, rather, there is a breathlessness of melancholy in his remark: ‘someone is about to leave”. When later Goto falls in the water and the capsized skiff recedes amongst the swells, Glossia amorously dries the clothes, Haendel’s music (concerto II op. 7) storms in followed by a very long and touching close up of the queen enhanced by an incredibly ambiguous eye game, all played out between the care for the husband and the raw pain for the wreckage nullifying the escape plans. It is here that Pierre Brasseur and Ligia Branice reach the peaks of their performances, every movement is followed by a forceful expressive furrow. Brasseur returns here to his ‘negative’ profound magnitude (Le Quais des Brumes) obscuring with chiaroscuros of tormented indecision the dark-Other side of his absolute command. The French actor’s facial features are swept by an echo of despairing moral sadness swiftly emerging in the most unexpected moments. The Polish actress Ligia Branice invents for ‘her’ Glossia a charge of mortuary eroticism, a continuous quiver of sin, contradicted by her tameless demeanour. It is as if oriental clangors where being alternated by deafening hushes.
    The colour exists in this film when the director’s attention allows it, or perhaps colours would exist but in that world they cannot thrive; such is the level of psycho-cultural alienation in an island where fantasy is banned for its sacrilegious and anti-social credentials. In the way Goto reveals those things that the utilitarian consuetude of daily routine conceals, this film resembles the sub-canvas of Magritte, in the syncopated rhythms of the films is not manifested the impossible, but a new sensible consistence of the known reality. The psychological references represent phosphoric coagulums simultaneously involving the subject and the object, spirit and matter, never descending into paperback ‘Filming Psychoanalysis’, always turning dreams into chemical substance manipulating poetry with implements.
    The enigmatic finale emphasizes the extra (dis)ordinary ambiguity of the assumptive enunciate, Borowczyk does not seem to want to close a poetic perception into the cage of his own explanation. How sexy!

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