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.
Stranger by the Lake is released on 21st February 2014