Lust and murder: Alain Guiraudie’s homoerotic thriller ‘Stranger by the Lake’ creates a splash


French writer-director Alain Guiraudie’s upcoming Stranger by the Lake, a hit at last fall’s New York Film Festival where the film’s explicit footage fueled considerable chatter, is a seductive pile-up of unknowns—not the kind that frustrate, but that intrigue and captivate. In fact, the French title of this suspense thriller is L’Inconnu du lac, “inconnu” meaning anything unknown and not just the tall, dark “stranger” of the English title.

Unknowns aside for the moment, many things are already known about Guiraudie and his film. Although Stranger is his first feature to have a commercial release stateside, New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center is a big Guiraudie fan. The organization, which produces the New York Film Festival and many year-round programs, is honoring the director and his six previous films with a tribute—“Alain Guiraudie: King of Escape.” Except for Guiraudie’s 2009 The King of Escape, which had brief non-commercial exposure in New York a year ago and gives the current tribute its name, his films are unknown to American audiences.

But 2014 brings a change. The weeklong series, a complete two-decade-spanning survey of Guiraudie’s short, medium-length and feature films that preceded Stranger by the Lake, kicks off on Jan. 24. More importantly, the 24th marks the premiere of Stranger at Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center and downtown Manhattan’s IFC Center, where the film begins its commercial run through Strand Releasing.

Guiraudie will be on hand for the Lincoln Center tribute and, earlier this month, for screenings of Stranger at Sundance, where the film has a number of showings.

About the January trip, Guiraudie, a native of the French hinterlands who already knows New York and San Francisco, says, “The real novelty for me will be the Sundance Festival and Boston, which are both new to me. But a retrospective of one’s films in New York is always a very special honor and especially so for me. Additionally, I’m quite curious to see how all my films, whether new or older, will be welcomed and understood.”

Stranger is sure to stir interest. In announcing the Guiraudie tribute, The Film Society described Stranger as “many movies in one” and “lethally precise…with a tangle of unruly impulses at its core.” They further enthused that the work is “a Hitchcockian thriller, a no-holds-barred and further depiction of a hedonistic subculture, and perhaps above all, a perverse and unnerving tale of amour fou.”

Recent fest receptions were just as giddy: In addition to the New York Film Festival buzz, Stranger was an official selection at the 2013 Cannes Fest where it won Un Certain Regard’s Best Director prize and also raised eyebrows above weary eyes as one of the official selections in Toronto. Some press have already weighed in favorably, including a recent article on the Atlantic website which dubbed Stranger as both “proudly” in the tradition of French cinema that has “sex on the brain” and one of the year’s “strongest” French films.

While early adulation is known, the big unknown is how American audiences will react to the film, especially as it includes hardcore material. The erotically charged story entirely unfolds on a gorgeous and seemingly little-trafficked gay cruising area at a vast lake in south-central France. Within the gay enclave’s mini-paradise of water, beach and woods, this idyllic nook soon becomes a crime scene. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a handsome early thirty-something and apparent regular, becomes an unlikely witness and victim of his strong yearnings. An amiable type, he’s looking for love, sex and friendship, about in that order. He finds hints of the latter in easygoing Henri (Patrick D’Assumçao), an outlier from the straight world who suns on the gay beach merely for its quiet pleasures. (The gay habitués go for noisier pleasures in the woods.)

Henri is a chubby middle-ager on vacation break and recently estranged from his girlfriend, but apparently none the worse for it. He and Franck form a friendly acquaintanceship and engage in warm chatter until Franck turns hot to trot after laying eyes on hunky, dark Michel (Christophe Paou), who, to Franck’s dismay, is already hooked up with another beachcomber.

But standing among the trees behind the deserted shore at late dusk, Franck witnesses something startling. Much ensues thereafter, most significantly a lustful folie à deux between Franck and his ominous dark “stranger by the lake.”

Danger and ambiguity are the subtexts of all that’s going on in the film, from Franck’s insistence on unsafe sex to the growing mystery surrounding his “stranger” and the actual murder itself. But what is sure to, uh, arouse the most conversation is the explicitness of some of the material. Guiraudie’s camera and his gay beach denizens spend much time in the woods. There’s a plentitude of sexual activity and frontal nudity, including two hardcore shots.

Seasoned porn watchers will detect that the hard-core material is done with inserts of players other than the principals. Says Guiraudie, “I had planned from the beginning to use body doubles for the non-simulated shots.”

Asked why, unlike in his previous films, he went in such a graphic direction, Guiraudie, who is gay, quickly offers that “my motive to do this came from my life and from the big themes I wanted to deal with. [The graphic material] is a means of getting closer to reality and putting more honesty into my films. But it’s important for all to know that I didn’t include [explicit footage] to provoke.”

Although never having gone all the way, so to speak, in his previous works, Guiraudie admits to making “offbeat films from the start that reinvented the world, that resist naturalism,” such as in the The King of Escape and its romance between its gay, middle-aged tractor salesman hero and a teenage girl. “It’s entirely possible [that this kind of romance could happen], but in this case it was a figment of my imagination.”

Reflecting on his new film, he confides, “I have never really tackled the representation of my own sexuality…so I felt it was time for me to deal with more serious matters. I felt it was time to represent the birds and the bees, not just horsing around or [depicting] friendship-love as I’d done before but [showing] passion-love… I wanted to address what it means to have someone under your skin [and explore] how far can it go.”

Guiraudie continues, “I decided it was time to look at the world as it really is. I no longer wanted to sidestep it by resorting to fantasy, or transform it to fit my desires. At the point I’m at, and the world is at, it seems to me that cinema’s job is no longer to represent another world, but to make do with the world as it is, to approach it from another angle and to present it differently. It’s this world and not another that is in need of new horizons. And I also wanted to stop keeping things at a distance and to get to the heart of the subject…to experience the pangs of desire, to make them palpable.”

At first timid in his approach “because keeping a distance feels so safe,” Guiraudie believes that with Stranger, “I’ve finally given myself free rein. Until now, because of this shyness, comedy often overshadowed the sense of worry that pervades my films. Here, I was adamant about reversing that.”

While platonic friendship vs. physical desire was also on his mind, Guiraudie says he wanted to explore through Franck and his new lover Michel the question, “How far do we let desires take us?” He also toys with the notion of a so-called utopian love that may or may not exist. “I wanted to put that discourse to the test by filming sexuality in a more documentary way, rather than recreating a fantasy world that meshed with my desires. I wanted to film what happens within the gay microcosm, to represent this type of cruising spot.”

Guiraudie wanted to go graphic “without ostentation…because in a world where 10-year-old kids have almost all seen pornographic pictures on the Internet before they have even begun their active sexual lives, it seems urgent to rediscover sex as an interaction that may also be based on dialogue, seduction and love.”

As for what he might have left on the proverbial cutting room floor, he admits to “putting aside a lot of explicit material that was in my script. But like all films, there were early sequences that we lost during editing, often because of issues with the rhythm of the film and wanting to keep the mystery alive… In the edit, we only kept what was necessary. We had an hour of incredible sunsets, but we weren’t about to use them all! It’s the same with sex.”

The recent controversy surrounding France’s also gay but not quite as graphic lesbian love story Blue is the Warmest Color, which got some pummeling because the film’s director and two female leads are reportedly heterosexual, prompts the indelicate question of which of Guiraudie’s key cast might be gay. He allows that only one of the major players is.

Whomever they bat for, they all deliver convincing performances. Deladonchamps, who plays the seemingly innocent Franck, has a strong background in French TV series; Paou, the enigmatic Michel, has appeared in a number of features and will soon be seen in Cohen Media Group’s The Chef; and d’Assumçao, the huggable straight guy Henri, is short on acting credits but long on talent and ease in front of a camera.

All three are proof that, as Guiraudie says, “I was above all looking for good actors.” He believes “talented heterosexual actors can do a fine job of playing homosexuals.”

The three major players are superb, as are the supporting actors, including the oddball habitué who’s a casual, self-pleasuring voyeur to so much sexual activity and the detective assigned to the case who, while accepting of gays, just doesn’t understand their behavior, including the nonchalance of the regulars who seem indifferent to the fact that their “paradise” has become a crime scene.

About the three leads, Guiraudie says, “I started off with a trio of male characters who might represent three facets of the same man, which they do for me: There’s the flighty “cool” guy [Franck]; the master seducer [Michel]; and the man who’s beyond all that [Henri].”

Yet Guiraudie dubs Franck his “hero,” even though he has some disturbing flaws (he insists on unsafe sex, he begins a relationship with someone questionable). Says Guiraudie, “The question I was really trying to deal with was [Franck’s] quest for love and how far his passion will go in pursuit of it.”

Love and passion, Guiraudie believes, are above all sexual. “I wanted to confront that head-on, in a different way, by creating sequences that combine the emotions of being in love with the obscenity of sex, without pitting nobility of feelings on the one hand against the trivial function of sex organs on the other.” Love in this story means never having to say “I love you,” which, intentionally or not, emerges as yet another of the film’s unknowns.

Stranger by the Lake went into release in France last June when, no surprise, French audiences behaved like French audiences. Guiraudie notes, “The response was very good from both critics and audiences. The latter enjoyed the film and critics had a lot to say about it.” (A typical older French moviegoer—a retired teacher and family man—from the large French provincial city of St. Etienne told this reporter that he and his 91-year-old mother saw the film together and really liked it. They weren’t put off by the hardcore sex, “although this was strong for French cinema,” he admitted.)

Guiraudie comes from a rural working-class background in the southern French département of Aveyron, an area where he shoots his films. He had no film school or formal film training, but has seen “a lot” of movies. He favors no single genre but is especially fond of works by “Hitchcock, John Ford and Hawks, Fellini and the neo-realists.”

While Guiraudie goes meta-realist for the first time with the explicitness of Stranger, the film marks a return to characters close to his rural working-class roots. Franck is an out-of-work farmers’ market vendor and Henri is enjoying a break as a logger (Michel’s occupation is unknown, as if he’s a full-time stud). It’s clear there’s no royalty among these cruising area visitors. Even the investigating detective who shows up is little more than a working-class grunt. And the recurring shots of the area’s nearby parking lot of grungy cars remind that this gay microcosm is a working-class haven. Danger may lurk, but there’s no threat of gay-gentrification in this all-access setting of easy sex among anonymous partners.

Guiraudie knows the world he wants to create, a forbidding, magical, mysterious, often dark place of fairytale qualities. In other words, a place that, like in most fairytales, thrives on imminent dangers and other “unknowns.”

The filmmaker, shooting exteriors only at the single lake location, was also after the classical Aristotelian unities of action, place and time, as the plot moves continuously from day into night in several cycles. He explains, “Setting the story in a single location harkens back to the Greeks and the unity of Greek drama that I wanted.” Even Henri, as the level-headed observer of so much (until a surprising turn), serves as a kind of Greek chorus, and the police inspector assigned to solve the crime functions as a kind of commentator.

Beyond the Grecian, fairytale and realist touches, Guiraudie suggests he was most motivated by his fascination with nature—not so much human nature as physical nature, and all the better for a visual artist. Stranger by the Lake allowed the filmmaker to, he says, “focus on an intimate reality by returning to a world I knew very well. And I extrapolated here the elements that interested me: the sun, the water, the forest, which are all intensely erotic and poetic.”

The location is in Guiraudie territory, Lac de Sainte-Croix in the Var département of southern France. “The lake,” he says, “has this real cruising area, but there are many such lakes in France where this goes on.”

To capture the beauty of the area (evident onscreen), Guiraudie sought natural light only, because “it contributed to the overall natural feel I sought. I wanted to show the contrast between so much that was gorgeous in sun and twilight and the nightmare that the darkness brought.” In fact, the times of day that natural light reveals, along with the physical setting, are like supporting stars of the film.

Guiraudie used the high-end Epic Red camera to depict the many subtleties of the beach/woods/lake location and changing day parts. Sound design was just as precise. The director used no music but exploited the location’s ambient sounds (birds chirping, insects buzzing, the frequent whoosh of the wind in the trees, the occasional plane).

Another motif here is the obfuscation of love as it’s universally understood. The film portrays a world where lust, easy sex and danger co-mingle, where “trick” and “lover” have little distinction, and where friendships—platonic connections—struggle. (Franck cannot consummate efforts to grab a drink with Henri or achieve any kind of post-lakeside social intercourse with Michel.) So where does love fit in?

There’s also the theme of solitude. “I like this theme, because it’s clear that that is what Franck is dealing with. I guess you could say I really wanted to make an important, romantic film about solitude.”

Stranger by the Lake is a compact suspense gem swirling with unknowns, but the big unknown in pragmatic terms is how perennially branded “puritanical” American audiences will react to the explicit material. Reports from last spring’s Cannes screening of Stranger by the Lake had several male critics bolting from the explicit sex scenes. More recently, The Hollywood Reporter speculated that the so-so CinemaScore that The Wolf of Wall Street received was due to the film’s “raunch” polarizing viewers in Middle America. Stranger, of course, is not a mass-market film, but “raunch” may still only go so far with the specialized crowd.

Guiraudie speculates: “I’ve already shown the film in several overseas countries, in Europe, in Asia, parts of America and in places even more puritanical than the United States. And I can also imagine that it’s not the most puritan of viewers who are coming to see it. In fact, I just don’t know how the film will be welcomed [in the States].”

Perhaps the most lingering unknown of the movie is its ambiguous, unexpected and haunting ending. Guiraudie won’t clear the muddy waters he stirs: “It’s up to every viewer to reach his or her own conclusion.”

Such an ending screams for a sequel, but don’t look for Stranger at the Lake II. “My next film will have more of a socioeconomic context,” Guiraudie reports, “and takes place at a dairy that the workers and peasants turn into a cooperative.” Clearly, his working-class roots are as deep as his interest in portraying sexual desire.