In the Kingdom of G

In the film world of the 20th century, there were not too many animators who made the transition to live action feature film directing. Certainly Frank Tashlin was one of the most famous, going from Porky Pig and Daffy Duck cartoon shorts to manic pop culture comedies like The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) and Hollywood or Bust (1956). Another rare exception was George Pal, who became famous for his Puppetoon shorts for Paramount before establishing himself as a director of fantasy features such as Tom Thumb (1958) and The Time Machine (1960). It is far easier to name more contemporary filmmakers like Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton and Brad Bird,  all of whom graduated from cartoons to live-action features successfully. The above are all artists who worked in the commercial cinema but, if you are talking about art cinema, the list is much smaller and Polish animator Walerian Borowczyk should be in the top slot. Goto, Island of Love (1969, Polish title: Goto, I’ile d’amour), his feature film debut, is a fascinating achievement that successfully brings the avant-garde sensibilities of his animated shorts to a live action feature.

Walerian Borowczyk (behind the camera) on the set of one of his films.

Borowczyk first gained fame in Poland as a gifted poster artist along with Jan Lenica, who honed his craft as an illustrator and cartoonist for numerous publications. In the late 1950s, the two men began collaborating on several animated shorts employing a technique that mixed paper cut-outs with live action. They first made a name for themselves with the 1957 cartoon short Once There Was which created a whimsical fantasy world composed of collages and child-like drawings. Their most significant collaboration, however, was the award-winning Dom (1959), which gave movement to a series of inanimate objects in a short film about a woman’s hallucinations. One of the more startling images features a crawling wig that sips milk from a bottle and eats an orange.

One of the surreal images from Dom (1959), an animated short by Walerian Borowczyk & Jan Lenica.

In 1963 Borowczyk branched out on his own with The Concert of M. and Mme. Kabal, a bizarre animated short in which a pianist is constantly interrupted in concert by his abusive wife. The animator would soon achieve international renown for two landmark works. The first, Renaissance (1963), utilized discarded objects and antiques like a stuffed owl, a doll, a trumpet, a clothes hamper and other items which reassemble themselves as a still-life composition before blowing up. Borowczyk’s fondness for odd bric-a-brac would become a familiar element in his live action films and would also serve a source of inspiration for the Quay Brothers in such stop-motion animation oddities as Street of Crocodiles (1986).

A scene from the 1963 animated short, Renaissance, by director Walerian Borowczyk.

The Game of Angels (1964) is Borowczyk’s other acknowledged masterpiece and it uses expressionist paintings, surreal imagery and disturbing sound effects to create an oppressive sense of menace and horror experienced by concentration camp victims. The artist’s penchant for the absurd, the grotesque and the darkly humorous would serve him well in his feature film debut, Goto, Island of Love. Set on an island that has been cut off from the world after a major earthquake in 1887, the story focuses on the repressive society that has evolved since the cataclysmic event that killed off 99 per cent of the population.

Goto III (Pierre Brasseur), the petty dictator of his tiny kingdom, and his young wife Glossia (Ligia Branice) witness a trial by combat in Goto, Island of Love (1969).

Everyone on the island has a name that begins with G. Running the whole show is Goto III (Pierre Brasseur), a narcissistic and erratic dictator, whose sense of governing fluctuates between the cruel and the whimsical. His much younger wife Glossia (Ligia Branice) is having a secret affair with Lieutenant Gono (Jean-Pierre Andreani), a riding instructor. No one seems to notice this except Grozo (Guy Saint-Jean), a petty thief who is arrested for stealing a pair of binoculars and sentenced to trial by combat against Gra (Michel Thomass), a large, murderous oaf. The winner will be pardoned and the loser will be beheaded.

Grozo (Guy Saint-Jean, right) is given an unfair advantage over Gra (Michel Thomass) in a death duel in Walarian Borowczyk’s Goto, Island of Love (1969).

In an expected turn of events, Grozo avoids being killed by Gra and begs for mercy at the feet of Glossia and Goto III. The king decides to not only promote Grozo to head overseer of his dog kennel but to also appoint him official fly catcher and boot polisher. With his newfound sense of authority, Grozo becomes overly ambitious and devises a plan to take Glossia for his own, eliminating anyone who stands in his way. His transformation from pitiful schmuck to scheming sociopath is depicted by Borowczyk as both a black comedy and a tragedy with a doomed love affair at the center.

The title of the film is, of course, facetious and the opening disclaimer by Borowczyk stating that the film is realistic and set in “our time” is a joke. Nevertheless, the director conjures up a hermetically sealed alternate reality from the opening credit sequence, which uses the wall of a barn as a background while a series of horses gallop across the scene from left to right; in one case, someone wearing a riding helmet walks past the camera. All of it seems inspired, whether intentionally or not, by the early motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge. The black and white cinematography is also ideally suited to depicting a post-apocalyptic society where everything seems to be in a state of decay or stagnation, something that prefigures the look of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977). There are a few brief bursts of color used as a kind of visual punctuation in the film – a pale of blood, a bucket of meat scraps, possibly a woman’s boudoir? – but the effect is more mysterious than enlightening.

Goto III (Pierre Brasseur) discovers that his wife Glossia is having an affair with her riding instructor in Goto, Island of Love (1969).

The sound design of Goto, Island of Love is also instrumental in bringing this forlorn civilization to life. Soldiers marching, animal noises and machine sounds are included in a mix with loud periodic blasts from George Frideric Handel’s “Concerto No. 11 Opus 7.” Dolls, wicker crates, shoes, women’s undergarments, statue heads and a wooden foot for boot polishing are predominant elements in the art direction but the box-like fly catcher contraption with its moving parts (Borowczyk designed it himself) deserves a special mention.

Grozo (Guy Saint-Jean) studies relics from the island’s historical past which are some of the few reminders of a 1887 earthquake in the 1969 film, Goto, Island of Love.

One aspect you can’t help but notice is the mostly static camera set-ups. Most of the action is confined to the main frame and there is minimal camera movement for most of the film except for a few sequences – Glossia riding a horse or Grozo frantically chasing after his romantic obsession. This fixed point of view seems to suggest that the characters are all trapped in their roles and unable to break out of them. They are merely puppets in Borowczyk’s bizarre universe.

A schoolboy choir sings the praises of their narcissistic leader in the avant-garde fantasy, Goto, Island of Love (1969).

Despite the grim, oppressive atmosphere, however, are moments of total nonsense, biting satire and even tenderness. One of the most amusing sequence is the pre-concert event before the Gronzo-Gra death duel. A man entertains the crowd by playing a saw which produces a Theremin-like sound, another musician plunks away on an odd, homemade string instrument and a choir of schoolboys sing a song praising their fearless leader Goto III because everything is about him.

Gronzo (Guy Saint-Jean, left) tries to communicate with Gomor (Rene Dary), his former boss, through an ear horn in the absurdist drama, Goto, Island of Love (1969).

The bickering rivalry between Gronzo and Gomor (Rene Dary), the former overseer of the dog kennels, is like a Theater of Cruelty sketch and reminds me of the absurdist humor of Roman Polanski’s early shorts like Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958) or The Fat and the Lean (1961). The scene where two of Goto III’s dogs are executed by a firing squad (off camera) seems like a surrealistic joke that Luis Bunuel would appreciate. And literary references and influences abound from Alfred Jarry’s 1897 avant-garde play “Ubu Roi” to Franz Kafka’s 1914 short story “In the Penal Colony.”

Gronzo (Guy Saint-Jean, left) begs for mercy from his queen (Ligia Branice) and King (Pierre Brasseur) in the 1969 film, Goto, Island of Love.

The performances in Goto, Island of Love are impressive for such a stylized production. Pierre Brasseur as the self-absorbed tyrant Goto III is both foolish and deceptively menacing but he actually becomes an almost sympathetic character when he begins to trust the deceitful Gronzo. In one of the most surprising sequences, he plays a game of hide and seek with his wife amid the huge rocks along the shore and almost drowns while trying to climb inside a rowboat.

Pierre Brasseur is well known by horror/fantasy film fans for his creepy performance as an obsessive surgeon in Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face (1960).

Brasseur had a long, prolific career in French cinema, appearing in such classics as Port of Shadows (1938) and Children of Paradise (1945), both directed by Marcel Carne. Of course, his most famous role might be the maniacal surgeon with a disfigured daughter in Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face (1960).

Ligia Branice as the lovely Glossia in the 1969 surrealist drama, Goto, Island of Love.

The lovely Ligia Branice (who was Borowczyk’s wife in real life) is perfectly cast as the fragile, oppressed heroine while Jean-Pierre Andreani is little more than a handsome cipher as her lieutenant lover. Branice only made a handful of films, mostly for her husband, but is probably best known as a woman from the future in Chris Marker’s influential sci-fi short La Jetee (1962). Andreani spent most of his career as a television actor in French productions but he did pop up in Just Jaecklin’s erotic S&M romp, The Story of O (1975).

Jean-Pierre Andreani plays the dashing young lieutenant who plots to run away with the wife of a dictator in Goto, Island of Love (1969)

The real star of Goto, Island of Love, however, is Guy Saint-Jean as Grozo. His sense of desperation drives the film, accented by his anxious eyes and quivering jaw. His metamorphosis from victim to victimizer is genuinely creepy. Grozo might be the most cunning person on the island – which isn’t saying much – but he’s not smart enough to foresee the possible consequences of his actions and becomes a prisoner of his own desires. Saint-Jean would go on to become a favorite actor of French director Alain Jessua, who cast him in several of his films including Life Upside Down (1964) and The Killing Game (1967).

Guy Saint-Jean co-stars in Alain Jessua’s macabre 1973 thriller, Shock Treatment (Traitement de Choc).

Although Goto, Island of Love ends badly, Borowczyk refuses to give the viewer closure by adding a final shot of Glossia that suggests a possible resurrection not unlike the miraculous climax of Carl Dreyer’s Ordet (1955). The film was well received by many European critics but was barely released in the U.S. Howard Thompson of The New York Times was not impressed. He wrote, “Some viewers may stanchly define this exercise as a serious, black-comedy commentary on a human power structure, mass subjugation or simply human waste. Instead of the two horses who trot back and forth across the screen (whatever they are supposed to signify), this viewer kept praying for the Three Stooges—yes, Curley, Larry and Moe—custard pies included.The picture just could be too profound to grasp at a single showing.”

Guy Saint-Jean plays a character who is both cunning and pathetic in Walerian Borowczyk’s 1969 film, Goto, Island of Love.

Clearly Goto, Island of Love is not for everyone and Borowczyk never made another movie quite like it. His next film, Blanche (1971), with his wife Ligia in the title role, was a sensuous medieval costume drama, and he followed that with Immoral Tales (1973), a quartet of stories about sex that signaled his directorial switch from art house erotica to softcore exploitation.

A group of prostitutes bath themselves in this scene from Goto, Island of Love (1969) which director Walerian Borowczyk who later revisit in a similar scene in his erotic art house film Immoral Tales (1973).

It should be noted that there are some flashes of female nudity in Goto, Island of Love – prostitutes in a brothel wash room bath themselves in large tubs – but it is relatively discreet compared to the explicit sex scenes in The Beast (1975), Borowczyk’s take on Beauty and the Beast and his fourth feature film. Many critics were outraged by The Beast and condemned it as pornography. Borowczyk’s career suffered as a result and he never regained the respect and admiration he enjoyed for his earlier work although The Story of Sin (1975), a lush, visually stunning period tragedy, might be his masterpiece.

Goto, Island of Love was first released on DVD in the U.S. in February 2006 from Cult Epics and included the 1959 animated short, Les Astronautes, which Borowczyk made in collaboration with Chris Marker. Then Arrow Academy released a stunning high-definition remaster of Goto in September 2014 on Blu-Ray/DVD, which comes with a host of extra features including a documentary on Borowczyk’s sound design in films. You need an all-region Blu-Ray/DVD player to view it but it is worth the effort.

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