Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger By The Lake was one of the few hits of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the director’s prize for the Un Certain Regard strand, generating such praise by word of mouth that the film has got a release where Guiraudie’s previous films have not. Acting then as a startling reminder of how many films one never gets the chance to see, Stranger By The Lake is nonetheless one of the more encouraging films in recent months.
The film is set entirely on a portion of a beach used for cruising, the shore, the waters and the woods inhabited entirely by gay men on the lookout for casual sex. Set in the summer, we follow Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) as he spends day after day on the beach looking for sex and maybe even love. He almost immediately falls into conversation – but only conversation – with Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), a grim, middle-aged man whose wife has left him and who insists on sitting alone at the far reaches of the shore. Franck is helplessly attracted to Michel (Christophe Paou), however, and watches him, waiting for an opportunity. His attraction to Michel does not seem to be diminished when Franck inadvertently witnesses Michel drowning his current lover Pascal (François-Renaud Labarthe). Franck nonetheless begins a passionate affair with Michel, seemingly both attracted and repelled by the murder he has witnessed. Things are complicated by the arrival of Inspector Damroder (Jérôme Chappatte), who is investigating the crime and seems to suspect Franck.
Much of Stranger By The Lake is sparingly presented, leaving most of the character’s thoughts and motivations open to interpretation. The dialogue offers some tidy symbolism (the potentially dangerous fish that resides in the pleasant waters in which Franck enjoys swimming) and Franck’s unwillingness to use condoms during the (graphically presented) sex scenes may suggest that the film is about AIDs and the dangers that come when one is enjoying oneself without regard for the consequences. Although the film is open to interpretation, these seem somewhat unhelpful. The film seems primarily concerned not with suggestions and real world relevance but instead with being an examination of a powerful, all-consuming, irrational and ultimately incomprehensible passion (Marie’s “If he asked me to, I’d die for him” from Bresson Au Hasard Balthazar) tempered, albeit only slightly, by Franck’s fear for his own personal safety. The film is open only so far as Franck himself does not understand his motivations since the very thing that frightens the wits out of him causes him to become more and more attached. Indeed, Guiraudie’s tightly controlled frames allows for a lot of suspense, especially as night falls on the beach and Franck, alone, suddenly begins to suspect that Michel might be approaching him in the dark. The ending, then, is open too since, in questions of passion, things do not get suddenly resolved and, despite his fear, Michel’s apparent attempts to murder Franck may only excite Franck all the more.
Being, then, essentially an erotic thriller about two gay men, the film thankfully removes the erotic thriller tropes of any trace of the misogyny too often apparent in more heterosexual thrillers. It also breathes new life into the formula since much of the early sections of the film are devoted to the cruising spot, a setting rarely seen in cinema so widely released. The film offers a dissection of the politics of such a place, giving an insight into its inner workings and its somewhat arbitrary rules – in one funny scene a possessive man claims the right to privacy since he is lying beyond a particular line of trees. Similarly, the film is full of naked men, all presented casually and without much attention. Nonetheless, it is a surprise to see a film with so many visible penises, clearly reminding one that there is a form of gender imbalance when it comes to onscreen nudity and, ultimately, how strange that really is. As for the graphic sex scenes, and in relation to the complaints about Blue Is The Warmest Colour, which won the Palme D’Or in the same Cannes Film Festival, they feel too much like pointless shock tactics – as if assaulting an audience that the film seems to think might be suddenly squeamish about such things – to be easily integrated into the rest of the film. However, since this film is more distanced and less about love, they do not feel entirely out of place, as similar scenes in Blue Is The Warmest Colour did.
One of the main appeals of the film, aside from the originality of the setting and the intriguingly odd subject matter, is the beauty of the images. Guiraudie manages to capture something very strange about the light that a setting sun casts on a lake, making it look both alive, beautiful and vaguely threatening. The murder has been written about elsewhere (it was achieved with the help of scuba diving equipment) and it is a nicely done moment, but the film’s main success in this direction is its distillation of what summer feels like – hot, picturesque but also somewhat melancholy and dull. Guiraudie brings out this repetitive nature in a series of repeated shots that begin each new day in which Franck parks his car and walks down to the beach. These repeated sequences may also point to the obsessive nature of Franck’s frequent visits to the beach.
Stranger By The Lake is an art house thriller that manages to be both thrilling and interesting as well as brilliantly shot and nice to look at. Guiraudie displays a remarkable control over his images and themes and he offers a unique insight into a part of the world that is rare represented on film. As such, Stranger By The Lake can be as fun as it is intellectually stimulating (even political undertones have been written about) and a near perfect rendering of summer on film.