For anyone acquainted with Borowczyk’s, shall we say, more ‘erotic’ features, it would be easy to assume his debut full-length live action film Goto, Isle of Love (1968) would be a hotbed of steamy eroticism going by the title alone. But then this is Borowczyk, and as with anything he turned his hand to, if there is one thing that can be counted on, it is to expect the unexpected. Although to be fair there is some love going on in Goto, it’s just more of the crazy obsessional kind, than the provocative horse and fiend loving that pops up in his later effort The Beast (1975). This obscure piece of surreal wonderment is now on a Blu-ray/DVD combo available thanks to Arrow Academy. The newly restored version is part of the label’s series of standalone Borowczyk films that have been released since the landmark ‘Camera Obscura’ Borowczyk box set sold out in record time. (You can read more about this in our initial review of the first title in the set Walerian Borowczyk Short Films and Animation, here).
The story takes place on the Island of Goto. After suffering a natural disaster that took out most of the population the residents of the island have created an insular society that does not seem to have evolved in the century, or so since it was formed. The inter-title at the beginning of the film informs the audience that the story of Goto is occurring in our time thus meaning that these people have fashioned a society on a fortress island that does not appear to have been influenced from outside sources for a long time. An introductory scene in an all-boys school- girls don’t appear to get an education on Goto- sets up the foundations of the weird social structure in force. The students talk about Goto and its history- explaining the Island is governed by a King- Goto- and at this point they are on their third incarnation of the leader- Goto the Third. Goto the Third takes his place lording it up over the great unwashed, with his vicious dogs by his side. In our introduction the leader is joined by his passive and obviously bored wife Glossia- as the public gathers to watch two prisoners fight it out to the death. The winner of this gladiator type show will be granted a full pardon, and the loser will be given the death penalty and be beheaded in front of the salivating crowds. One of the prisoners Grozo, through sheer luck, after snivelling to the king’s wife, manages to escape his fate and once freed is granted the role of chief shoe polisher for The Royals. Grozo is also given the tasks of looking after Goto’s fierce dogs, and a position as the local fly catcher- the island is plagued by flies which could be read as a metaphor for the stagnating atmosphere within the local culture. But Grozo has other ideas and has become quite smitten with Glossia. The audience is treated to a few glances of his idolisation of the lamentable Queen in the fetishised shots of her feet walking in heeled boots that he dreams about, the same boots he later so fervently polishes. The former prisoner also relives the moment he was freed and escaped into the arms of a shocked Glossia for comfort, seemingly taking great relish in recalling the details. Glossia has already found an outlet for her sexual advances, however, in the arms of an elicit lover, a lieutenant, and when Grozo discovers this, the knowledge drives him down a dangerous path of destruction.
The set up in Goto is pretty nonsensical and the social hierarchy quite frankly, bizarre. By now in reading this review it might be apparent that everyone on the island has been given a name that begins with the letter ‘G’. Menial jobs- like shoe shining are assigned some kind of high status, like an honoured public service. Grozo’s predecessor is leader Goto’s father-in-law, Gono, who guards his position with zeal when the newcomer arrives. Women are barely seen, apart from at public gatherings, and then, en masse working in the local brothel where men are assigned tickets to enter. Even the King’s mother-in-law does her best to serve the local men’s physical needs. One of the most serious crimes is using binoculars, with only the high powered granted this luxury, and breaking the law is punishable by death regardless of the crime. While the lack of local resources present Goto as the land of make do, with fly catching machines, or musical instruments strung together from scrap items. From this canvass Borowczyk manages to extract many instances of surreal black comedy, that contrast with some of the more sombre themes at play.
As with a lot of the director’s work the film trades in some dark themes. The narrative, with its quirky visual flourishes, at first glance, seems to present a surreal universe that has no footing in reality. Yet at the core of the tale is a pretty solid story that boils down simply to sexual desire. Borowczyk wraps up his storytelling in peculiar garnishing, granted, but if you scrape back the layers, it is quite clear what lies at the heart of the film. While this is not presented in explicit terms, in contrast to some of Borowczyk’s other work, the main plotline follows down the road of one man pursuing his lust object. Overtly there appears to be a social commentary or satire going on concerning the secular structure of the society of Goto- the homogenous nature of the residents, our central character Grozo apparently striving for independence, and the fear of the residents in general rendering them useless to escape the confines of their futile existences. However, again, rip this back, and all that is left is a tragic tale of a man sent into madness in the process of pursuing his ultimate dream. In a way, you could call this Borowczyk’s Macbeth, with our central protagonist ruthless in his methods to get what he wants, and willing to step on anyone that gets in his way. As with Macbeth, the story comes with a tragic conclusion, and the director successfully blends sex and death as the two central elements that drive the story on to its desolate ending.
Stylistically Goto, Isle of Love seems like a logical progression from the director’s early animation and shorts. The grainy black and white cinematography and weirdness crafted from the little set design eccentricities give the piece the look and feel of an old fashioned grainy photo come to life. The overall effect is like prying into a moving snapshot of another place and time, with the enthusiastic Handel score that belts out at various moments adding into the offbeat feel. Some of the director’s trademark elements creep in to set the scene- like the assigning significance to certain inanimate objects, here for example shoes appear to represent Grozo’s carnal desire for Glossia. Although the feature is mainly black and white, certain shots are presented in colour, albeit briefly but as such these little touches achieve some feeling of resonance.
The cast do a great job adding in nuance and touches to their performances that support the aura of the piece. Pierre Brasseur as Goto makes for a cold leader, quite a distant man, who apparently has more love for his dogs, than his wife or subjects- although he is not an overly cruel man, and strangely sympathetic on some level. Borowczyk’s wife Ligia Branice steps into female lead Glossia’s shoes, and provides some of the scant graphic nudity and erotic elements that appear here and there. Branice gives a convincing rendition here of a woman trapped by circumstance, and translates the soul of someone dreaming to escape her confines for a better life. The most interesting performance comes from Guy Saint-Jean as Grozo, in his portrayal of a multi-faceted character- on one hand Grozo is cowardly, and longing for a mother figure, and on the other he is nasty, vindictive, overcome by lust and treacherous in his methods. For the supporting characters, there are some weird personalities that pop up in the background, and all these roles are played out with a certain amount of skill that plays into Borowczyk’s cleverly crafted peculiar vibe of the overall piece.
In line with the other titles in the set, this restoration is of high quality, and comes neatly packaged with an interesting selection of extras (full specs listed below). One for lovers of the eccentric, Goto, Isle of Love is a spellbinding story of love and lust that holds deeper meaning than its whimsical façade would first suggest. Lacking in the overt nudity and eroticism of the director’s later work, the underlying themes still make this worthwhile to those who are more familiar with titles such as The Beast and Immoral Tales; while the sturdy foundations of the plot make this easier to digest than some of Borowczyk’s more surreal offerings.
- New high definition digital restoration
- Uncompressed Mono 2.0 PCM Audio
- Optional English subtitles
- Introduction by artist and Turner Prize nominee Craigie Horsfield
- The Concentration Universe, a new interview programme featuring actor Jean-Pierre Andréani, cameraman Noël Véry and camera assistant Jean-Pierre Platel
- The Profligate Door, a new documentary about Borowczyk’s sound sculptures featuring curator Maurice Corbet
- Reversible sleeve featuring original poster designs
- Collector’s booklet