Best remembered for the outrageous film The Beast (La Bete), Walerian Borowczyk's origins as an animator and satirist are much more evident in his debut feature film, Goto, l'île d'amour.
Pronounced "Gottoh," Borowczyk's viciously funny movie is a mélange of historic film styles, which he uses to create a distanced, theatrical narrative for his absurdist tale of an Iago-like scoundrel who almost manages to enjoy the fruits of his selfish schemes.
The thematic parallels to Shakespeare are readily apparent, but Borowczyk establishes his own isolated land of lunatics, all reduced to living out and furthering the remnants of an idiosyncratic culture. With the vestiges of their technocratic world reduced to museum relics in scarred wooden and glass cabinets, the island's inhabitants live out dullard lives under the guise of their corpulent lord, Goto III, who presides over his society's legal courts - basically a stage-bound challenge between a hooded giant and a club-wielding weakling, with the loser losing his head - and appoints key positions to the worthy.
That's pretty much how the story's little Iago - Grozo (everyone's name begins with the letter G) begins his quest for power: saved from the guillotine by Goto III, the scheming twerp is awarded the posts of boot polisher and fly catcher. Learning his craft, Borowczyk's Grozo murders and exploits the weaknesses of the cuckolded Goto III, until the kingdom is within his grasp.
Borowczyk's visual approach is still tied to the flat, portraiture style of his animated work, but it all seems like a deliberate and clever method in presenting the absurdist tale as a classic French play on societal and political idiocies. The high contrast black and white cinematography (interrupted a handful of times by brief colour shots) evokes the harsh lighting of nascent film photography; the static images are reminiscent of the immobile camera found in early sound films, but Borowczyk frequently breaks the mould via extreme close-ups and the occasional tracking shot.
Cult Epics' transfer is made from a very clean print, and though the framing seems a bit tight - an online reference to a PAL VHS release has the film's ratio at 1.66:1 - the framing of many shots are overall quite odd.
The film's visual design is less portraiture, and more of a textural collage; blending various cinematographic styles, and striking, moving patterns within singular shots. (A key example is the film's opening titles, which unravel like a zoetrope - of passing horses and riders against a wood-paneled background.)
Much like The Beast, Goto uses classical music for underscore - here, it's Handel's Concerto No. 11, opus 7 - but Borowczyk positions live performances to further ridicule Goto's society, as the same piece is played very badly by post-catastrophic, junk instruments - including a bow and a twangy saw.
The nudity that ultimately became a pivotal element in the director's work is less important in Goto, and appears to either shock the cuckolded ruler (and position his rapid downfall), or act as a naughty narrative interlude when prostitutes bathe before boffing their anxious clients. (The DVD includes the film's French trailer - itself stylized like a pre-WWII promo - which also seems to include a few shots not in the final film.)
Cult Epics' DVD - part of the branded Walerian Borowczyk Collection - includes a booklet with brief but informative liner notes by Rayo Casablanca, a printed filmography of Borowczyk's lengthy career, and original promo art (which, like much of Borowczyk's striking film posters, plays up the boobery with a sprawled female figure).
Having begun his film career in 1946, Borowczyk made a number of animated, live action, and mixed media shorts before exclusively remaining in the feature film field, and the DVD includes one of his award-winning shorts, made in collaboration with Chris Marker (who also designed the striking Beast booklet, reproduced in Cult Epics' limited 3-disc edition). Astronautes, from 1959, is a witty short that follows the creation of a spaceship and the astronaut's exploration and inter-stellar encounters, using a mélange of film stills, optical effects, and cutouts. Stylistically recalling the later work of Monty Python's Terry Gilliam, the short's humour and absurd assimilation of objects to create actual space travel also includes some dual-language text (in English and French), and an appropriately trippy electronic score by Andrzej Markowski.
According to Casablanca 's notes, Borowczyk was considered one of Europe pre-eminent animators before he 'unleashed' the shocking ideas in The Beast. Better known to a select few as a cult director of weird softcore erotica, the release of Goto and Astronautes should begin a re-examination of the director's work, and hopefully start a trickle of more Borowczyk animated classics that remain largely unavailable on DVD.
The Walerian Borowczyk Collection includes Goto, Island of Love, Love Rites, and single-disc edition of The Beast, plus four postcards featuring images from the three films (which are also available separately). Available separately is Behind Convent Walls / Interno di un convento (1978).
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan