by Kathie Smith
Erotic thrillers love to massage the enigmatic line between sex and death, but few have rendered the palpitating connection with such grounded methodical audacity as Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake. Guiraudie, in his sixth feature film, takes us a little further down this endorphin-inducing trail than most with ample amounts of unambiguous sex and frank nudity. Courtesy of a male nude beach that also acts as a playground for sunlit cruising, the film allows “la petite mort” to behave as a double entendre, referring to the blasé pastime of the male characters and a rogue element with sanguinary intentions. The sexual exploits at the fore of this narrative aggrandize the clandestinity of this slow-burn character study—building, propelling, and even valorizing the allure of this murder mystery in the form of a pulsing en plein air romance.
Director: Alain Guiraudie
Producer: Sylvie Pialat
Writer: Alain Guiraudie
Cinematographer: Claire Mathon
Editor: Jean-Christophe Hym
Cast: Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou, Patrick D’Assumçao, Jérôme Chappatte, Mathieu Vervisch, Emmanuel Daumas,
Premiere: May 17, 2013 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: January 24, 2014
US Distributor: Strand Releasing
Fresh-faced Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) has returned to his isolated haunt for the summer: a beach that allows him to wile away the day with casual sex, friendly chats, languorous sunbathing, and an occasional swim in the lake. Recently unemployed, Franck seems to approach these activities with a mixture of boredom and distraction, mentioning to a fellow beachcomber that he’s not sure about his next steps in life. That irresolution fades quickly when Franck spies Michel (Christophe Paou), a hunk who physically evokes Tom Selleck by way of Tom of Finland. Even though (or perhaps because) Michel harbors an ability for nonchalant malice, Franck eagerly pursues, engages, and eventually falls for the Delphic stranger.
The film’s early centerpiece—and foreboding anchor of ruin—arrives with a stunning single shot after the sun has set as we crouch in the woods with Franck, watching Michel and his lover go for a swim. Voyeuristically, we witness the horseplay taking a turn and Michel pushes his companion under for good. Franck stays hidden as Michel emerges from the water alone and returns to his car. Michel takes note that only Franck’s (and his now dead lover’s) car remains. The following day, Michel solicits Franck, and his power to resist evaporates under the more potent spell of desire. Their subsequent tryst, with the most graphic sex you’re going to see this side of pornography, not only heightens a titillating corporeal awareness but also introduces a carnality that, by the end of the film, turns quite violent. An inspector appears on site, hands clasped behind his back as he lurks around, to question potential witnesses about the body found in the lake, but he’s no more than another observer in a group of observers, somewhat pointedly standing shoulder to shoulder with the audience in judgment.
Guiraudie creates an insular environment that reflects a closed system of men and cruising, ticking off the days with an establishing shot of the beach’s makeshift parking area. The characters might talk of happy hour or dinner, but Stranger by the Lake begins and ends with the beach and the surrounding woods, where the men seek intimacy among the foliage. The atmosphere provides an isolated case study on the psychology of casual sex and commitment, intimacy and compassion, and a more primal impulse toward pleasure that overrules cogent civility. It’s no mistake that the boiling point comes in the form of a threat delivered by the most sexually latent character on the beach to the most eroticized. Or that the film ends in complete darkness—two men alone with their desires and the mystery of where that will lead.
Stranger by the Lake is destined to have a limited audience, but you can almost feel Guiraudie smile with the film’s first casual shot of full frontal nudity and first close-up of ejaculatory satisfaction. This is a work of stylish confrontation and defiance that rewards with its complexity and craft, thumbing its nose at prudishness along the way. The terrain traversed here, like Alfred Hitchcock’s best films, is pure Freud with little regard for gender or sexual preference, despite outward appearances. Social relevance in queer politics is not on the agenda (although that did not stop the Un Certain Regard jury at Cannes from awarding Guiraudie Best Director while protesters took to the streets in Paris over gay marriage). Rather than offering a sly criticism of conservative attitudes, Stranger by the Lake earns its subversion by being one of the finest films of the year that just happens to leave little to unabashedly portray sex between two men. If you want to see it, deal with it.