Interview: Alain Guiraudie, director of ‘Stranger by the Lake’

| February 21, 2014

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David Prendeville sat down with Alain Guiraudie to discuss his latest feature, Stranger by the Lake, which won him Best Director in the “Un Certain Regard” section at Cannes last year.

Alain Guiraudie oozes class. A confident, humorous Frenchman, the director has every reason to be happy with himself. His brilliant, insidious homoerotic thriller Stranger by the Lake premiered in Cannes in the Un Certain Regard last May, where Guiraudie picked up the best director award. The film has since gone to receive universal acclaim and numerous accolades, not least being named the best film of 2013 by the prestigious, iconic Cahiers du Cinema.

The film is a strikingly singular piece of work. It combines the motifs of an erotic thriller with a transcendental, other worldly quality. The film is set entirely in one location- on a lakeside cruising spot- where the lead character Franck spends his summer days wandering around looking for casual sex. Franck befriends the lonely Henri, with whom he strikes up a touching, albeit entirely platonic relationship. Franck’s desires are towards Michel- a handsome, mysterious man he spots in the distance. Michel appears to be in a relationship with Pascal. However one evening, Franck observing the largely deserted beach from the woods sees Michel drown Pascal. This has the effect of raising Franck’s desire for Michel further. Before long he is embroiled in an intensely passionate relationship with this strange, dangerous man, much to Henri’s chagrin.

Where did the inspiration of the film come from? ” Really it came from my own life, a lake I know where men go. I tried to mix real-life characters with character archetypes. It really comes from numerous things: films I’ve seen, Greek tragedies”. Stranger by the Lake is a uniquely cinematic experience. The film manages to juxtapose a sometimes distant formal approach similar to that of a Haneke or a Pasolini, with an intimacy and carnality rarely seen in mainstream cinema. When asked about what filmmakers influenced the style of his picture Guiraudie ponders for a moment before citing Apichatong Weerasetakul, acclaimed Thai director of films such Tropical Malady, Syndromes and a Century and the Palme D’or winning Uncle Boonmee who Can Recall his Past Lives. ” Actually, I spoke to Weerasetakul about wanting to shoot in between light and dark while using natural light asking how he went about it in his films”.

The emphasis on only using natural lighting ties in with the film’s agenda of keeping any manipulations of sound or image to a minimum. Anther obvious example of this is the fact that the film features no music; instead the film’s sound design is built around an extraordinary use of natural sounds. Was this the plan from the outset or was it something that came to Guiraudie while he was making the film or in post-production? ”To tell you the truth, in the original script there was a plan to use some natural music, maybe like techno music coming from a car or something, but we had decided from the beginning that we would have nature sounds as much as possible and in the end I decided to only use nature sounds because really the music would have corrupted the spell of the film”.

One of the most extraordinary scenes in the film is when Franck observes his love interest Michel casually drowning his lover in the sea. The film is shot at a distance, presumably from Franck’s perspective. I can’t resist asking Guiraudie how he managed to do this scene from a technical point of view. When posed with this question a smile emerges on Guiraudie’s face – I suspect it’s a question he has been asked before, and one he takes a certain pride in answering. ” The actor who is playing Michel’s lover is actually an underwater specialist. He held his breath for eight minutes and so swam out of view of the camera. We were lucky that the actor playing Michel was in such great shape because obviously that made it easier to do the scene.”

Enough about the technical and formal side of the filmmaking. As formally brilliant as the film is, there are also serious thematic issues at the heart of the picture. It deals in big themes- love being the predominant one, in a provocative, eerie yet strangely delicate manner. Much has been made of the film’s explicit sexual content, but I decide to forego any question on this subject matter as Guiraudie is likely tired of answering it. What’s more interesting is what the film has to say about carnal desire and the way in which it compares and contrast two different types of love – that of sexual love, with Franck’s desire for the dangerous Michel, and that of platonic love – Franck’s relationship with the intelligent, lonely Henri. ”The question is of desire. Passionate love with Michel and chaste love with Henri. Henri as a character has a desire for something more than sex. It calls to mind Socrates and the idea of an ideal love. He desired women but doesn’t want to make love to them. The ideal love story goes further than sex”.

Guiraudie seems like a passionate, thoughtful fellow and his picture reflects this. A truly absorbing, astounding piece of work, Stranger by the Lake already looks at this early stage as one of the very best films likely to be seen this year. Seek it out.

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