Directed by: Alain Guiraudie.
Written by: Alain Guiraudie.
Starring: Pierre Deladonchamps (Franck), Christophe Paou (Michel), Patrick d'Assumçao (Henri), Jérôme Chappatte (Inspecteur Damroder), Mathieu Vervisch (Eric), Emmanuel Daumas (Philippe).
Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger By the Lake is a thriller Hitchcock would have been proud to make – had he been gay, and working in 2013, he may well have made it himself. The film contains the most graphic gay sex you will likely see outside of a porn film, and yet the sex scenes are not used for empty shock value or thrills – instead they actually deepen the narrative and the characters. This is a film set exclusively in only a few locations – a beach in the South of France used as a cruising spot for gay men, the path leading to the beach, the forest that surrounds it where the men retreat for anonymous sex, and the parking lot. The narrative plays out over the course of 10 consecutive days and just over 90 minutes. This is tight, expertly crafted thriller.
The film stars Pierre Deladonchamps as Franck who comes to the beautiful, serene beach for the same reason everyone else does – to hook up with random men. Through the course of the film, he will develop vastly different relationships with two of the men he meets there. First, there is Henri (Patrick a’Assumcao), a pudgy, middle aged man, who claims he isn’t gay, but is at the very least sexually confused. He sits off to the side of the beach – not really interacting with anyone, but observing. Franck strikes up a conversation with him one day – not for the purpose of leading to sex, but simply to be nice. The two develop an easy friendship built on talk – both open up in ways they may otherwise not do, because at least at first, the prospect of them meeting again seems slim.
Then there is Michel – a muscle bound, mustachioed man who immediately catches Franck’s eye, and who he immediately wants to take into the woods. The problem is that Michel seems to have a lover attached at his hip – and even when Franck does get a few private words with him; it isn’t long before Michel is being dragged away by his lover. This doesn’t stop Franck from hooking up with another man – but he’s still drawn to Michel. This attraction doesn’t subside even when he sees Michel – at a distance – drowning his lover in the lake and slowly walking away. In fact, in some ways, it makes Franck want him even more.
Stranger by the Lake is a movie about the dangers of this kind of heedless, reckless passion. Even before Franck becomes involved with Michel, he is already asking for trouble. When he heads off into the woods with a man he does not know, and they realize that neither of them has a condom, Franck doesn’t care – wants to have sex anyway (the other man balks at the idea). When he finally does hook up with Michel, again Franck doesn’t want to use a condom – and Michel doesn’t care either. It’s not exactly a smart thing to have sex unprotected with random people – and it’s even more unwise to start a sexual relationship with a man you know murdered his previous lover. Both Franck cannot help himself – he is drawn to Michel, and becomes addicted to him. He even tells Henri that he is in love with Michel – which is ridiculous because Michel refuses to see Franck other than at the beach. But Franck is infatuated with Michel – and cannot stop himself from wanting to be with him, even as the police start questioning them both, and Michel starts looking at Franck slightly differently. Even Franck wonders if Michel is going to murder him as well.
The film is expertly crafted by Guiraudie, who gradually increases the tension as the film moves along. The climax of the film, which is where most movies of this sort screw everything up, is here perhaps the best part. The violence that erupts feels natural, the tension created palpable, and the ending is disturbing and ambiguous.
I know some will not want to see the movie because of the gay sex. At Cannes, where the movie premiered to pretty much unanimous praise, there were was even some talk that the reason it was relegated to the Un Certain Regard sidebar rather than the main competition is because of the sex (including one come shot), which is just another example of the double standard between movies featuring gay men having sex, and lesbians (Blue is the Warmest Color, with its 20 minute lesbian sex scenes, of course won the Palme D’Or). But if a little gay sex scares you away from Stranger by the Lake, that’s your problem – not the film's.