Stranger By The Lake
Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), the boyish protagonist in "Stranger By The Lake," comes to a lakeside cruising area looking for something more than just sex. Early on, he sees a hunk (named Michel played by Christophe Paou, an actor with a marked resemblance to Tom Selleck) and follows him into the woods behind the beach where the sex takes place. His plans are thwarted, though, when he sees Michel rimming another man. Franck is a bit startled, but not Michel - he notices Franck and smiles.
Already Alain Guiraudie's suspense drama does something that you wouldn't see in an American film: explicit gay sex. As the film continues these outdoor trysts include shots of men performing hardcore. Guiraudie never dwells on the sex - the shots are quick (blink and you may miss them) - but they give this story, completely set in this kind-of sexual utopia during high summer, an unflinching naturalism. Guiraudie's rigorous style even eschews music, instead it is the natural sounds that make an effective alternative soundtrack.
To achieve that end, Guiraudie maintains a cool distance from his characters, offering an almost anthropological look into the quirks and rituals of gay men cruising. That Franck and Michel appear destined to meet may have something to do with the fact that both actors have sexy movie actor good looks while most of the other men stalking the wooded trails are more average looking. Deladonchamps is lean and a bit pretty; Paou has a rougher, more rugged look; together they have chemistry.
What brings them together, though, turns out to be something more perverse than love at first sight. (Spoiler alert: the following reveals a crucial plot point.) Early in the film Franck lingers in the woods late in the day; there in twilight he watches Michel and his current boyfriend playing in the water; but their hijinks turn deadly as Franck appears to witness Michel drowning the other man, then swimming to shore in nothing less than a triumphant gesture. The next day, Michel turns his attention on Franck, who, a bit inexplicably, succumbs. Sex turns out to level the playing field.
Such is the dynamic of this taut, psychological thriller, which isn’t as much a ’whodunit’ than a game of desire and death played in the most serene of settings. Punctuating the action are shots of the woods, the hilly terrain, the sky and the water that combine to suggest a dreamlike world. (Guiraudie has said that the film that most influenced him is "Night of the Hunter," Charles Laughton’s 1955 thriller about children being stalked by a murderer in the woods, and that influence is apparent.)
In fact, the film is a romantic fantasy up to the point when a pesky police detective (Jérôme Chappatte) arrives on the scene to interrogate the men after a man’s body is found in the water. That the detective looks so out-of-place as he wanders through the underbrush and approaches the cruisers with his inquiries only underscores the dry humor that punctuates the film.
The detective represents a straight point-of-view, even at one point admonishing Franck for the casual anonymous sex that he doesn’t understand. He also is not the only straight character; before he sees Michel, Franck meets Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao) on the beach and begins a chaste, though palpable romance. Henri is an odd duck, setting apart from the other men, never taking off his shirt, going in the water or cruising the woods. Franck learns Henri has recently broken up with a woman, which may account for his sad demeanor. Like Franck, he’s searching for something more than getting off, but what it is remains pretty much a mystery. Is he the stranger by the lake?
Or is it the charismatic Michel? As played by Paou, Michel has swagger to spare and a creepy coolness that makes him irresistible and repellent at the same time. Paou conveys Michel’s duality with exacting conviction and has great rapport with Deladonchamps, who ably suggests Franck’s quivering ambivalence.
That ambivalence gives the film its tension, one that cleverly moves between the seeming calm of the setting and the potential violence that can erupt at any moment. Late in the film when Michel asks Franck to take a swim, you’re likely to have an uncomfortable laugh: he’s assuredly pushing the limits of Franck’s desire, but the question remains why would Franck decide to go in the water?
What makes "Stranger By The Lake" such a fascinating and disturbing movie is how brilliantly Guiraudie mixes romantic fantasy and cold reality. Fassbinder once said love is colder than death; Guiraudie shows how that love can lead to death with a kind of formal brashness that Fassbinder would likely have admired.