Film Review: Stranger by the Lake

With its abundant nudity and hardcore gay sex scenes, this film would seem to posit itself firmly in a queer niche, yet Alain Giraudie's febrilely intelligent, wonderfully dry handling of carnal obsession and its price speaks to a more universal purpos

The gay subculture presented in Stranger by the Lake is a far cry from the designer label-driven, hiply wisecracking types familiar from “Will & Grace” and its spawn, or their more serious media-represented brethren, deeply concerned with child-raising and marriage rights, as well as those of the entire LGBTQEtc. community. No, the population of men who congregate beside the titular lake here have no agenda, it seems, beyond getting an all-over tan and having sex, which is readily available in a nearby forest. In a setting as sylvan and beautiful as a landscape by Courbet or any of the Impressionists who came after him, men ogle and tryst with one another, often anonymously, with a singular compulsion. Such places exist all over the world, and are a very real part of many gay lives, however unknown—or, indeed, known—they may be to the local heterosexual population, and this is what writer-director Alain Guiraudie, with traditional Gallic sexual forthrightness, has chosen as his focus.

Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is but one of the guys addicted to the unbridled, easy hedonism of the lake, breezily maintaining casual acquaintanceships with many of its denizens. But when he spots sexy Michel (Christophe Paou), deeper feelings are stirred within him and a fatal attraction is ignited. Franck also witnesses a murder on the scene, which brings a questioning, Porfiry-esque  detective (Jérôme Chappatte) to the premises, momentarily shattering the idyllically carnal ambiance.

With its overall quiet, lovely, sun-dappled photography, languorous pacing and repetitive shots, like those of the ever-shifting cars in the lake's parking lot, Guiraudie’s film fully captures a summery vibe in which nothing but pleasure and its pursuit should ever occur. The lazy, sensual monotony of the setting, with its intense, even lethal allure, causes a certain deadening of the brain, as well as moral sense, as the men blithely continue their cruising and commingling, oblivious to the fact that a murder has actually been committed there. Guiraudie's oblique style pays off as he makes this and other points with an admirable subtlety devoid of preachiness.

The most original and moving character is Henri (Patrick D'Assumçao), who is straight but extremely lonely, and haplessly comes to the lake in search of simple friendship. Striking indeed is the quiet pathos Guiraudie extracts from the relationship he strikes up with Franck, easily tolerant of his new friend's penchant to suddenly wander off in pursuit of Michel, sometimes in mid-conversation, and then deeply hurt when he takes a dinner invitation which never happens more seriously than Franck ever intended.

It is Henri, too, who delivers a reality check to Franck about Michel's unwillingness to spend the night or have a meal with him. Michel rationalizes his intimacy-shunning reluctance as the fear of tiring of Franck's company, something Franck himself could never envision. The existential loneliness at the root of all these bluff beach players and the evanescent nature of deeper human interaction in a world where sexual compulsion takes top priority are evoked with a powerfully dry yet keen observation that is heartbreaking.