"The main thing is the optical effect," it is heard as the despot's portrait is exhibited in school. Like Tashlin, Walerian Borowczyk displays the animator's repulsion toward realism -- the central image finds a pair of dolts pushing each other against a concrete wall, but the flat perspective is adorned by ravishingly soiled bric-a-brac (the glass cabinet in the back of the classroom holds a pistol and a dummy's painted noggin). The island takes its name from the aging ruler (Pierre Brasseur), a squashed satyr in generalissimo uniform who holds gladiatorial bouts to decide the fate of his prisoners. His wife Glossia (Ligia Branice) is a sad swan who rolls in the hay with her equestrian teacher Gono (Jean-Pierre Andréani) and gazes at the horizon across the waters: The ocean may promise new things ("Not better... different"), but it's also where bodies are dumped because "salt devours everything." Grozo (Guy Saint-Jean), a convict with mean eyes, is pardoned and becomes the dictator's personal boot-polisher and kennel-keeper, and the island's chief hunter of flies. The tenor is rather close to Kafka (and also, fortuitously, to Franju's Eyes Without a Face); the universe is boiled down to crawling desire and neurosis, the terse filmmaking expands the visions Borowczyk can't get out of his head (galloping horses, apples, binoculars, flies, flies and more flies). Given a gun to take down the unfaithful queen, Grozo shoots Goto instead and usurps the throne before going after Glossia -- when the trappings of ambition and the release of lust cancel each other out, is it any wonder that the world looks like a tattered penal colony and sounds like an organ grinder's version of Händel? The characters remain locked in their subterranean circles, yet Borowczyk finds transcendence amid the grime by insisting on the mystical force of longing: The queen's body is laid out before an ardent camera, and the missing link between the endings of Ordet and Sweet Movie suddenly materializes. Cinematography by Guy Durban. With Ginette Leclerc, Fernand Bercher, and Rudy Lenoir. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce