Stranger by the Lake has a clever poster. The film, as well, is clever; it shows a particular ingenuity towards particular ends. It won Alain Guiraudie the best director prize at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar this year. It features beautiful, personal and unsimulated sex between men. It also depicts rather ugly, violent, senseless sex. Both end the same way. Neither is superfluous. A murder occurs. It is also not superfluous.
I’m getting far ahead of myself. Let’s return to that poster: the controversial one-sheet features a brightly colored, primitive sketch of a beach, some trees and various male figures in states of undress. In the foreground are two shirted men in the middle of a verdant bush, and while one is colored properly, though minimally, the other is in stark black and white. They are kissing. The poster takes European art cinema tropes (hand drawings, foregrounded director name, homosexual eroticism), does them elegantly, and also slyly pushes past them. Similarly, Stranger by the Lake starts by drawing us into an explicit world that feels familiar, especially for those who attend film festivals with any regularity. However, its initially holistic marriage to the tradition of anti-traditional moviemaking makes its actual machinations that much more effective. Guiradie’s film is a brilliantly expressive thriller that takes the necessary time to build up emotionally coherent tension.
But, once again, I’m getting ahead of myself. Stranger by the Lake follows a few days in the life of Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a frequenter of the beachside cruising spot at which the entire film takes place. This spot is decidedly only country for older men (an early joke consists of a desperate visitor in search of horny women promptly told, “I think you’re in the wrong place.”) This first section seems at first a slow, at times quite humorous jism-drenched ethnography of casual ritual as we move from the beach into the woods, observing the daily cycle of waiting and coupling. Guiraudie’s reliance on master shots, shocking images presented nonchalantly and, at first, very light exposition suggest that he has cheaply bought into standard European art house technique in order to make a picturesque but ultimately hollow portrait of a queer subculture.
But Guiraudie is up to much, much more here. The murder occurs about a third of the way into the movie, and it involves Franck’s newest infatuation, Michel (the crisply lustful Christophe Paou). This violent change of course makes little impact on Stranger’s tone, which proves to be an effectively sinister choice. We are suddenly lost in a world that, in spite of its lewdness, we have grown accustomed to. What follows is a refined examination of gross behaviors, one that is wholly reliant on breaking from earlier, adroitly established visual patterns. Our perspective on events, at first objective in feeling (but never in practice), brings us closer and closer into the subjective experience of Franck, without making his intentions or desire any more relatable. His pursuit of pleasure in spite of dangerous circumstances is unconscionable, and yet so tightly woven with the atmosphere and mores to which we are introduced earlier, that the ethical quandaries seem a matter of gray when in most cases they would be black and white. Stranger by the Lake is so subtle in its tone that mortal fear, erotic ecstasy and uncomfortable laughter begin to seem inevitably bound. The film’s sense of danger does not derive from sensationalized homosexuality or random, anonymous coupling, but rather from the inside, from the paralysis brought on by man’s deep, uncontainable, carnal desire. Both an exquisitely filmed, deeply intelligent exploration of the ethics of pleasure and an entertaining and involving film, Stranger by the Lake rewards the permissive viewer open to its seemingly prurient content.