Cast: Pierre Deladonchamps, Cgristophe Paou, Patrick d'Assumcao
Director: Alain Guiraudie
Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Alain Guiraudie's Stranger By The Lake, which won him the Best Director award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, is a brilliantly sustained erotic thriller in which the thrills are psychological and the eroticism built around a sense of the ordinary. The film presents a fairly simple premise; men lounging around, mostly in the buff, on a beach somewhere in France, who occasionally sneak off into the woods to engage in sexual encounters. Guiraudie frames the geographical location as a kind of mythical paradise cut off from the outside world, a place where the sexual norms are liberated from the mores of normalized society. What makes the setup interesting has less to do with the film's much talked about sexual explicitness, but rather with the way it deals with the notions of desire.
The specificity of this centralized location, evocatively lensed by cinematographer Claire Mathon, creates a bottle effect in which Guiraudie traps his audience inside this idyllic paradise only to slowly create the impression that something sinister lurks beneath the surface. The film follows Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a young man who spends his days cruising and laying out in the sun while simultaneously zeroing in on the object of his desire; a tanned, mustachioed gent with a mysterious glimmer in his eyes named Michel (Cgristophe Paou). Franck also takes time out of his busy schedule to chat with Henri (Patrick d'Assumcao), a middle-aged loner who spends his time sitting in solitude further off the cruising path. These interactions, which are by turns playful and insightful, feel like the heart of the film, though many viewers will be far too distracted by the picture's blunt sexual detours to sufficiently take them in. This is unfortunate, and perhaps speaks more to our puritanical views (at least in America) in terms of onscreen sexuality than anything. Truthfully, though Stranger By The Lake is plenty graphic, it also displays sexual encounters with a mundane ordinariness that feels genuine given this subculture. Nothing is over-analyzed or amped up for effect; rather, Guiraude depicts sex for these men as part of a larger need for connection, whether emotional or physical. Therefore, the film's bluntness and lack of condemnation toward its characters is key to understanding how we, too, should not condemn behavior that might be outside our own narrow-minded viewpoints.
The relationship that forms between Franck and Henri is nonsexual, developing out of a mutual need for connection, something that Guiraudie is also getting at here. Henri, played in a lovely, understated performance by d'Assumcao, is a heterosexual, or possibly bisexual, older man that sees something in Franck beyond his youthful physical appearance. There's a quiet tension, as well as moments of tenderness, during Franck and Henri's conversations, which veer from the banal to the poignant. More than anything, these scenes set up the film's overriding theme involving the precarious limits of desire and about how if allowed to go unchecked, it can be both exhilarating and dangerous. Stranger By The Lake is very adept at locating the attraction Franck has toward this kind of desire and how it combines possible violence, turning the moment where he sees Michel committing a heinous act into a turning point, both for the character's internal conflict as well the audience's perspective. Guiraude methodically envelopes us into the tranquil atmosphere of this beach and then twists it into something dread-inducing. Here, at about the film's midpoint, things start to take on a very ominous quality, likely causing Hitchcock comparisons in terms of slowly racketing up suspense. Unlike the great master, though, who often used his actors as props in order to play his audience like a fiddle, Guiraude is more interested in the emotional pathology of his characters than standard tension-building gimmicks.
Much of what happens throughout the second half of Stranger By The Lake, including the appearance of a nosy police inspector, should play as campy melodrama, but instead here it comes across powerful and subdued. There's also moments of dark humor, like a creepy masturbating gentleman roving around the forest, and the very 70's Tom Selleck look of the Michel character, that adds dashes of levity to what essentially is a movie about the seductive allure of desire. Guiraude touches on these ideas mostly in visual terms rather than exposition. Though there's a lot of dialogue, it's often sparse or evasive, as if the characters are hiding their most primal truths for one another. Visually, Guiraude favors long shots and wide compositions, allowing his actors the freedom to move around within the frame. Several sequences, such as a POV shot of Franck witnessing the murder, as well as him swimming with Michel in the exact spot the crime took place, are brilliantly executed, brimming with suspense without the aid of a blaring soundtrack.
Though the movie does eventually have to go somewhere as the investigation becomes more prominent, it's primary interest is in showing the link between eroticism and death, and how the possibility of violence amidst the throes of intense desire can be overwhelming. The ending, too, is masterful; a sustained long shot shrouded in near darkness, with only the sounds of the rustling wind and chirping crickets to keep our nerves at bay. Like that final image, Stranger By The Lake lingers long in the memory as a provocative thesis on the dangers of giving yourself over to desire without stopping to consider the consequences.