Cinema Review: Stranger by the Lake

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DIR/WRI: Alain Guiraudie  PRO: Sylvie Pialat   DOP: Claire Mathon ED: Jean-Christophe Hym   CAST: Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou, Patrick d’Assumçao

Looks and glances: in Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake, they contain almost everything that needs to be said. There’s no music or dramatically lit shadows in this tense French thriller, but it maintains an uneasy, combustible atmosphere while resisting the temptation of many of the old reliable tools. It’s mysterious, erotic and dangerous, and very often that’s transmitted almost entirely through casual glances and suspicious looks.

 

The setting for the film is a lakeside beach, which has become a popular gay cruising spot. Every day, a dozen men show up to relax by the lakeshore, with some venturing into the nearby woods to perhaps find a partner for the day. It’s young Franck’s (Pierre Deladonchamps) first summer at the spot. He quickly strikes up a friendship with Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao): a middle-aged man on a solo holiday, but with no interest in cruising himself. However, Franck finds himself falling for the mysterious and sexy Michel (Christophe Paou), who initially seems completely out of Franck’s reach. When the discovery of a body threatens the cruising spot’s continued existence, it coincides with the beginnings of an unlikely but incredibly intense affair between Franck and Michel. Franck is aware of one of Michel’s troubling secrets, but if anything a certain element of risk only amplifies the young man’s passions.

 

The film is an exemplary example of one location filmmaking. Everything takes place on the shore of the lake – a beach, the adjacent woods and a makeshift car park. Characters leave every night, but the camera doesn’t follow them. Indeed, the repeated image of Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) arriving every morning is key to the film’s structure and chronology. That repetition also helps create a compelling internal rhythm, and as the film progresses Franck’s decision to show up every day provides us with an intriguing, subtle insight into his state of mind. Indeed, Franck serves as a fascinating protagonist – in many ways still trying to find his way in life, albeit with a dramatically potent recklessness (including a particularly risky fondness for unprotected sex).

 

One of the most intriguing aspects of Stranger by the Lake is how this group of strangers end up forming something of a community. Over the course of the week or so portrayed in the film, we witness relationships building and collapsing, rivalries forming and familiar routines developing. There’s even something like an unspoken set of rules governing the place (although probably too much to suggest an actual social hierarchy). It’s when this ‘community’ is threatened that things become really interesting, and that’s when we really begin to feel the real intensity those aforementioned looks and glances. The very nature of secluded cruising spot is cause for suspicion and secrecy among its regulars, and the untrusting glances every new arrival is greeted with articulate that suspicion powerfully. By the time the credits roll, it’s long since been evident that a cruising spot is a truly inspired choice for a controlled, intelligent thriller such as this.

 

Glances also serve another function here, and that’s for the characters (and, by extent, the camera and audience) to observe and judge the male bodies on display. This is a very eroticised thriller, no doubt about it, with the cast spending most of the film undressed. The sex is frank and explicit, passionate and honest. The sex scenes aren’t just mindless titillation, but also an effective way of drawing attention to individual characters’ traits and personalities (like Franck’s aforementioned aversion to condoms). It’s always encouraging to see sexuality treated in such a progressive, respectful manner, and especially given certain ongoing controversies in Ireland it’s great to see such frank portrayals of homosexuality reaching screens (even if this won’t be playing in many multiplexes, which is probably more down to subtitles than the sex). Even more so than last year’s Blue is the Warmest Colour, Stranger by the Lake uses sex as a way of developing its characters, atmosphere and themes. It also serves to start correcting the endlessly regressive discrepancy between the volume of male and female nudity we see on screens. Stranger by the Lake explores a very different sort of male gaze.

Guiraudie directs all this expertly, while cinematographer Claire Mathon’s favouring of natural light, static shots and subtle movement complementing the setting and mood. If there’s a slight misstep, it’s that the final five minutes perhaps lose some of the subtlety of what came before in favour of a more traditionally ‘thrilling’ climax, but it ultimately delivers a fiendishly abrupt ending that is bound to annoy and intrigue in equal measure. By and large, though, Stranger by the Lake is absolutely intriguing – smart, strange and sexy. With its fascinating characters, aesthetic maturity and sensibly subversive genre storytelling, it’s the sort of film you could almost see Hitchcock making if he had lived in an era or country with a more liberal ratings system. I suppose there are few more enthusiastic recommendations to conclude on than a Hitchcock comparison.

Stephen McNeice
100  mins

Stranger by the Lake is released on 21st February 2014

 

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

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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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