At this year’s Cannes Film Festival Stranger by the Lake was the winner of the Queer Palm, while writer/director Alain Guiraudie was named Best Director in the Un Certain Regard section. It screened at the Queer Screen Film Festival last week, and is scheduled to hit cinemas on limited release next month.
This confronting film pushes some boundaries. The explicit sex scenes (real acts, clearly unsimulated) will likely shock many an audience, but while possessing a handsome visual style, this is as candid a study of the homosexual cruising lifestyle as you are likely to find on screen. It is a tale of desire and lust, companionship and solitude, voyeurism and secrecy, enshrouded by murder. While it isn’t a particularly enjoyable experience – routine and repetition are ingrained in the plot, the laboured middle stretch involving a police investigation less than convincing - one can admire this bold undertaking. The final minutes alone will leave your heart racing.
Though it is a languidly paced slow burn, there is something intoxicating about the atmosphere built here by Guiraudie. This unique social study-come-thriller admirably utilizes its tiny, private and picturesque world – an idyllic sun-drenched bathing spot for naturists and homosexuals, which doubles as a cruise spot for promiscuous sexual encounters. On the beach, there seems to be plentiful space, but in the woods down in the dirt, there are entwined bodies at every turn. Time seems to stand still, and repeat on a loop. We are only ever taken into this world – the gorgeous clear blue lake where the bathers shed their clothes, the lush surrounding woods where the sex takes place, and the routine-ordered car park – between roughly mid-afternoon and dusk. The film is comprised of episodes over the course of about a ten-day period, with the tension gradually increasing. Often the scene begins with lake frequenter Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) parking his car in his usual spot and strolling through the woods to the beach. The scene is almost always the same, though there are subtle differences - Franck arrives at a different time of the day, cars are parked in different spots and a different crowd has assembled.
Franck forges two very different relationships over the course of the story. The first is with Henri (Patrick d’Assumcao), an overweight older man whose wife has just left him. He is content spending his summer break slightly removed from the hubbub, sitting and staring out into the water. He has come to this spot for solitude. He interests Franck and they enjoy each other’s company and the simplicity of talking without any other expectations. Henri doesn’t desire sex, and his life experience has taught him that finding companionship is more rewarding than acting on lust and partaking in shallow affairs, but his priorities shift as events unfold. He proposes that Franck join him for dinner, but Franck refuses because he has become obsessed with Michel (Christophe Paou), a handsome and well-built man with similar desires. Their connection is a passionate, physical one. But Franck comes to learn something about Michel that no one else does. He is a murderer. Franck witnessed it unfold. He now fears this man, but out of lust and their explosive sexual chemistry, he is drawn to him. This lifestyle is concerning alone - unsafe sex with many partners, an unsanitary environment, fulfilling desire via any means possible - but if Franck revealed what he knew about Michel he knows his life would be in more immediate danger. Soon enough a detective comes around asking questions about the body recently discovered, the body of Michel’s drowned former lover.
The photography, whether capturing the glistening lakeside or enveloped by the almost impenetrable darkness, is striking. There is a methodical sense of order to the way shots are composed. The film has a simple setting, an uncluttered narrative, but is rich with ideas and universal themes of humanity’s search for love and connection, both in the physical sense and the emotional. The final minutes are genuinely nail-bitingly tense. In fact, they are almost unbearable to watch.
Ultimately, fear begins to overwhelm Franck. He finds his rationality influenced by lust – he keeps quiet about what he knows, against the better judgment of Henri, and he doesn’t want to lose the sense of freedom this secluded natural hotspot provides. But, even entering the water alone with Michel becomes laden with uncertainty, and Guiraudie knows how to draw out every ounce of tension. I did find the authority inquiry a bit odd, and after setting up this world, the film gets a bit too languid post-murder. Franck was also a character I found difficult to care for. His questionable decisions, placing his life in the hands of a stranger and a fling that seems likely to fizzle out within a week, are difficult to relate to. Stranger by the Lake is a fascinating and elusive work of Queer Cinema; a beautifully photographed thriller that deserves accolades and warrants a look.
[rating=3] and a half
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22