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A gay cruising spot by a lake in southern France becomes the scene for a murder and sexual desire. Alain Guiraudie sensually explores love and lust under a cruel sun.
Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), the handsome, thirty-something central character in Alain Guiraudie’s new film Stranger by the Lake is a bundle of contradictions. A mixture of naïveté and sexual desire, his conflicting emotions lead him into a state of moral ambiguity, which Guiraudie examines with forensic precision and a deep humanity.
The film opens with Franck’s Renault 25 pulling into a scrubby car park. The scenery is familiar from countless French films set in the south of France: dry, dusty ground and whispering umbrella pines. The parking area, for what turns out to be a gay cruising spot, manages to be both idyllic with its lush treetops, and also utterly mundane with its non-descript cars vying for the shaded spaces. This becomes an establishing shot we return to at the beginning and end of every day, reminiscent of the crime-scene-like shot of the house in Michael Haneke’s Caché.
Neither the characters, nor the viewer, ever stray from the hermetic landscape of the car park, forest, lake and rocky shore. The resulting claustrophobia not only heightens the tension, but imbues the setting with a fairy tale quality. The characters are lost or abandoned here, and even though they leave after their sun and sex, they can’t help but return. One small quibble is that Franck mentions meeting up with some of these men outside of the world of the lake for supper and aperitifs, but it just doesn’t ring true. For these men to exist outside this milieu is for the conceit of the fairy-tale construction to fall away. And this very formal element is one of the more powerful and original tropes underpinning the film.
After witnessing a murder, Franck befriends Michel (Christophe Paou), the lithe, bronzed perpetrator of the crime (who somehow manages to look gorgeous despite a Tom Selleck moustache). We don’t know Franck’s intentions but we see he is suffering with the weight of his knowledge of the crime. Perhaps by getting closer to the murderer he feels he is getting nearer to an understanding of the motives behind it. Or perhaps Michel’s beauty is so blinding that Franck will forgive him his crime. Maybe he savours the extra element of danger he now knows lurks inside his lover. We will never know. However, by getting closer to Michel, we do see that Franck’s love for him deepens. And therein lies his dilemma: does he turn in the man he loves or cover up for him, thereby becoming an accomplice to the murder? Guiraudie handles this with the deftest of touches. We believe Franck’s every choice and decision and every expression that crosses his face as he moves moth-like towards Michel’s flame.
My second quibble, comes during, an important climactic scene. When Franck decides to go swimming at dusk with the murderous Michel, after having witnessed him drowning his ex-lover in similar circumstances, our hearts are pounding. Franck seems to be testing his lover to see whether he will be met with the same fate. The tension mounts as Franck, noticing they are alone, tentatively swims towards Michel, the setting sun turning the water a bruised shade of black. Franck gets bolder and the scene builds, but Guiraudie cuts before there is any resolution. I wanted more here.
Stranger by the Lake is not just a film about sexual desire, it is also a taut thriller. It shares elements with Claude Chabrol’s Le Boucher – except in this whodunit, we know exactly who did it. It is unusual for a film to plumb the depths of love, whilst simultaneously keeping us on the edge of our seats, and yet these two tonal approaches mesh seamlessly. As if juggling these were not enough, Guiraudet manages to insert flashes of humour. The absurdity of cruising is embodied in Eric (Mathieu Vervisch), a punter who roams the forest, comically popping up, penis in hand to masturbate while watching couples getting it on. He is tolerated almost fondly, only to be swatted away like a fly when lovers want some privacy. Guiraudet isn’t the sort of director to let anyone lose out, and even Eric manages a quick session with Franck, the object of his unflagging desire.
Stranger by the Lake is stunningly shot by Claire Mathon using only available light. Dusk looms large in Stranger by the Lake as both a metaphor for when we are least visible and least able to see, as well as simply being that moment in time when stifling heat gives way to the coolness of night. The sound of the film is also very telling: as daylight fades, different creatures can be heard. Guiraudie uses no music. He doesn’t need to, as there is enough sound in the trees, the lovemaking, waves lapping, and the distant rumbles of helicopters and traffic.
Comparisons will no doubt arise with Blue is the Warmest Colour, another film which graphically portrays same-sex coupling. Yet Guiraudie does not push his actors to the brink of what they are willing to perform. He uses body doubles for scenes that his actors do not feel comfortable with – a respectful decision that chimes with the non-judgmental stance his film takes towards nudity and sex. Formally, I feel Guiraudie takes Stranger by the Lake to a more interesting place than Blue is the Warmest Colour. By removing his characters from the gay club scene, from work and friends and family, he gives this film a dream-like quality. Here the characters are able to focus on the moral ambiguities of desire and lust without distraction. There is certainly realism in the pink, sweaty bodies splayed on the stony beach like specimens at the fishmongers, but alongside this is a sense of unreality as we, like the men in the film, begin to feel we are prisoners condemned to the baking heat of this dangerous lakeside idyll. There is literally no escape for any of us.
Guiraudie is known for making work that is naturalistic and sensual. Stranger by the Lake is both of these things and more. It is a visceral, almost mythic film, the characters like Greek gods, testing their free will and the solicitude of the universe towards them. The sex is an important element – erotic perhaps rather than pornographic – and yet what will stay with me is not the novelty and pleasure of seeing men having sex on-screen in a mainstream cinema (wonderful though that is) but the fact that a film which uses the gay cruising scene as its microcosm can be read as a film that examines lust and love in its widest context, as a shared experience regardless of gender and orientation. This is an original piece of filmmaking that explores the limits of sex and desire, and does so with such a light touch that it achieves that rare thing of making time disappear. We inhabit this film as we inhabit life, and that is a real achievement.