Stranger by the Lake, the first U.S.-distributed film by French filmmaker Alain Guiraudie stands out as a strikingly confident work. His little-known filmography dates back to 1990 and includes six other feature films, so he has had experience to build on. But watching his latest film with only knowledge of his surreal earlier work, which includes a world featuring unseen creatures called ounayes, it becomes easy to see why Stranger By the Lake stands out as his breakthrough movie.
Though grounded in a recognizable, real world, the specter of the unknowable still hangs heavy over the film’s action, which is shaped by primal sexual desire and a rather kinky flirtation with mystery. It focuses on a motley crew of gay men cruising for sex along the bank of a lake over the course of a few days during summer vacation in some part of France. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is new to the lake. He strikes up a conversational relationship with Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), a pudgy older man, who sits on the rocks with his arms crossed but never seems to partake in any of the sexual activity. Then there’s Michel (Christophe Paou), an athletic swimmer with a bushy Magnum P.I. mustache, who Franck passionately falls for.
Franck’s interest in Michel comes across in glances, and Michel’s lover does not like the look of it, so he presses Michel to leave for a romp in the nearby woods. Franck pairs off with another man in a Batman T-shirt. After Franck and “Batman” have their fling, which includes vivid ejaculation (ramming home a reference to le petit mort), Franck spies Michel drowning his clingy lover. Though Franck had told Henri he had not planned to visit the lake the following day, he shows up anyway. When Henri asks Franck what changed his mind, Franck eludes the question. However, the implication is clear: His desire for Michel has only been enhanced.
The film features plenty of nudity and sex, including, as noted, stuff some might only see in hardcore pornography (body doubles are used for these scenes). The casual nakedness and dangerous love recalls the darkly comic 1971 Brazilian film How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman, about a French settler who is practically adopted by a tribe of barely-clothed cannibals, given a wife, only to be eaten. The all-consuming and visceral desire of Franck for a man who he has spied drowning his lover gives Stranger By the Lake a similar ominous, primal vibe.
Sex for these men may be casual, but it is never without its complications. It serves a purpose in loading glances and adding a certain heft to the dialogue. Though these men seem to be able to talk intimately about sex, they exchange many questions never entirely answered. Conversations become taboo. When a masturbating voyeur stands near a naked Franck and Michel as they talk in the bushes, Michel tells him to go away. “Can’t you see we’re talking? Come back when we’re fucking.”
Stranger By the Lake is not about the plain-sighted but what lies beneath it. These men may seem to bare all (even Michel’s psychosis is put on plain display). However, there is always the unknown psychological that informs unspoken motivations: the unconscious. Guiraudie presents the fatal drowning and Michel rising from the lake afterward to put on his clothes and walk away in one long take, all from the perspective of the trees, where Franck has hidden. It’s a brilliant metaphor for that inert but essential place in the mind inexplicably linked to the death drive. It’s Freud’s theory of Eros and Thanatos, rising up from the pool of the unconscious incarnate.
The unknowable is further enhanced by witty dialogue that heightens the notion of a narrative based on questions. When Franck and Michel have their first sexual tryst, Michel asks Franck about his lover. Franck denies having one but then asks Michel, “And what did you do with yours?” The men exchange questions that remain unanswered as often as they reveal intimate thoughts of desire or self-worth, yet there is knowledge loaded in the questions that goes beyond dramatic irony and speaks to a dark, unmentionable drive below the surface. It’s perfectly represented in an earlier, casual chat between Franck and Henri when Henri warns Franck of the alleged presence of a 15-foot long silurus (or catfish) in the lake that is never seen in the movie.
Guiraudie maintains his focus brilliantly by staying devoted to the setting. The film never moves to any other location beyond the lake, the woods and a make-shift parking lot by a dirt road. He uses little stylization. The pacing is well controlled, never fast enough to call attention to itself or languorous enough to bore. Though the film has no extra-diegetic score, one of the first standout cinematic characteristics of Stranger By the Lake is its sound. The rustle of leaves from a wind that sends tree branches waving, the lapping of the water on the shoreline, the sound of gravel crunching below the feet of the men: this is the film’s score. It’s natural, but also heightened in its central position without any distracting music. In its own bizarre way, it adds to the film’s sinister, surreal and psychological quality. The sound of the water during Franck’s first swim in the lake adds a heft to the quality of what will be the murder weapon.
Guiraudie harnesses the power of his minimalist style to produce quality cinema— if you are not distracted by explicit gay sex. His sensibility is typically French, a country that has produced some of the most efficiently focused films in the world. The film’s biggest strength against this neat backdrop is its tightly packed dialogue, which is at once revealing and full of mystery. It only gets better as the film moves on when a police inspector intrudes on the men with more questions and climax with a scene of perfect, intriguing mystery. Guiraudie, who won the directing Prize of Un Certain Regard at 2013’s Cannes Film Festival, will certainly become a filmmaker to watch.
Stranger By the Lake runs 97 minutes, is in French with English subtitles and is unrated (it’s adult, psychologically and viscerally). It opens in South Florida area this Friday, Feb. 7, in Miami at O Cinema Wynwood and at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which provided a DVD screener for the purposes of this review. For screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s Facebook page.