Stranger by the Lake
aka L'Inconnu du lac
First screened in September 2013
Director: Alain Guiraudie. Cast: Pierre Deladonchamps, Patrick d'Assumçao, Christophe Paou, Jérôme Chappatte, Gilbert Traina, Mathieu Vervisch, Emmanuel Daumas, Alain Guiraudie, François-Renaud Labarthe, Sébastien Badachaoui, Gilles Guérin. Screenplay: Alain Guiraudie.

Twitter Capsule: Solid thriller, equal parts lust and inertia, austerity and shimmer. Good lead. Still, water doesn't run deep.

VOR:   I maintain my reservations but I've been intrigued by every reaction I've heard or read. Bare-bones and, uh, bare-everything conception stand out. Eager to see how this lingers.

Photo © 2013 Les Films du Worso, © 2014 Strand Releasing
Stranger by the Lake is a curious twelve-tone composition on themes of male-male lust and risk-addiction. French director Alain Guiraudie, whose previous features have had a hard time getting distribution here, but who will have no such problems with this one, comes about as close as you can to structuring the film as a sort of serialist experiment. Sometimes he reprises identical shots at different points in the movie. More often, he uses shots that are not congruent but may as well be, since they frame the same limited set of locations and characters and conjure similar feelings. Cars, bushes, beach, water, beach, water, cars, bushes, beach, bushes, beach, cars, water, beach. I saw the film at the Toronto Film Festival in September, and already the adjective "Hitchcockian" had been slithering dutifully behind the movie since its Cannes premiere in May. The film is so tense, so inclined to view people as either frozen or berserk aggregates of their own drives, that you can understand the label. As far as that goes, though, it's a bit of a contraption: sort of Rope-ish, for more reasons than its criminal atmosphere and pervasive homoeroticism, but with even less sense that you'll discover more in it the more you probe. The movie hypnotizes you, even as it makes you perhaps too aware of Guiraudie continuing to spin his zebra-stripe umbrella at you, wondering how far he's drawn you in.

Pierre Deladonchamps, a tersely resourceful actor, plays Franck, a thirty-ish whippet of a Frenchman with a nice face and laudable muscle definition. He's the kind of man some spectators may imagine could find a lover without visiting a beach made entirely of sharp stones, where nude men, most of them alone, sun themselves and surveil each other from carefully guarded distances. Viewed from above, maybe their placements on the beach describe some kind of constellation; we'll never know, because Guiraudie's camera hews closely to treelines, shorelines, and waterlines. The regulars on the beach cruise each other with a regularity both salacious and mundane, many of them surly or portly, and oddly haughty about the fact that they don't seem like anyone's first choices. Franck makes a few contacts, in scenes of such erotic candor (erections, ejaculate) that they have already made the movie a talking-point among the cinemarati, but he is clearly most intrigued by two particular men. One, Henri (Patrick d'Assumçao), a Depardieu lookalike who stays even more distant than others on the beach, is also the only one who refuses to drop trou and the only one who professes heterosexuality. The friendliness of nubile Franck's discourse clearly catches the taciturn Henri off-guard, just as his clammed-up inertia and loyal returns to the beach hold Franck's interest. Especially in an environment where opposites keep attracting—or, at least, they keep sucking and fucking, in the flimsy privacy of forest glades and crab-grass—Stranger by the Lake keeps waiting for Franck and Henri to conjugate whatever verb floats above them. I asked Deladonchamps at the screening I attended whether he, as the actor, thought Franck was telling the truth in denying any attraction to Henri. I'm sort of glad his answer was evasive, because the mysterious bond pulling the men together is the most delicious thing in a plenty delicious film. The actors' duet gives the relation a clear shape without specifying almost anything about it, like a perfect circle that only emerges as the organizing principle within a series of tangential lines.

Franck's other key relation, and the more intensely libidinous one, is with a coiled, mustachioed jaguar called Michel (Christophe Paou), who clocks Franck's arousal with expert peripheral vision, repeatedly glides right past him amid seemingly solitary swims, and dispenses with his regular partner for some lusty bouts with Franck back in the bramble. I do mean "dispenses": in the film's now-notorious narrative pivot, Franck espies Michel drowning his erstwhile lover in the sea one night and not only continues to seek him out for sex but implicates himself with a series of threadbare perjuries to an almost comically sepulchral policeman (Jérôme Chappatte) who follows up about the murder. Not to belabor obvious metaphors, but this is the development that stiffens Stranger by the Lake into a more classically suspenseful thriller but also the element that proves hardest to sustain. Guiraudie's uncanny knacks for generating tension through repeated shots, quotidian spectacles, and arcadian vistas made glassy and cruel through lighting and lens-choice don't necessarily extend to the more nuts-and-bolts demands (sorry) of a homicidal thriller. And the script, already prone to such ignoble conceits as a poisonous viper rumored to be threatening the gay male bathers, almost audibly runs out of steam. Some late, ostensibly climactic scenes (sorry) feel choppy in both grammar and thematic upshot, and that skeletal inspector fails to complicate the movie's tensile mood—he seems like an incongruous contrivance more than an intriguingly alien presence.

So Stranger by the Lake ultimately evinces some limits as both murder-mystery and existential meditation, at least as compared to stentatorian briefs filed on its behalf by critics at Cannes. Nonetheless, Guiraudie proffers that rare thing: a cinematic experience we don't feel we have had before. The copious male nudity aside, Stranger makes canny use of a seemingly niche location and its attendant economies of trust, distrust, abjection, and judgment, discerning within this rarefied ecosystem the ideal core for a 21st-century whodunit. At the same time, I don't want to suggest the film looks gay on the outside but in fact its ideas are universal and its structures sexually neutral. Clearly, Guiraudie's strictly controlled angles and frequent reprisal of familiar images are meant to resonate with how semi-reputable gay cruising grounds tend to be smaller and more constrained than you imagine them. Nude sexual partners, ready for the taking in gorgeous environs, sound well and dandy until you show up and see how cloistered the options are, and show up the next day and see how it's basically the same people, and yet you, too, keep guiltily showing up. I've never been to a beach like this, but an early-evening gay bar or a sparse hour at a gay gym—each aromatic with resigned disappointment, but also abundant with comically intense mutual scrutiny—are enough to show me what Guiraudie's gotten right. There's also something gay about the punctilious way each patron parks his car in his favorite spot, thank you very much, day after day, and about how Stranger converts such queenly fastidiousness (this is the way I like to do things!) into a clever suspense mechanism, much more memorable than who does and doesn't wind up with blood smeared across their torsos. The supporting players, including a frowning, perennially-rejected masturbator and a pissy fussbudget as jealous as he is promiscuous, are also types I rarely see on screen. They are wittily presented here, helping to leaven an experience that sometimes risks a certain sterility through its schematic assembly, and sometimes seems a smidge over-proud of its winching menace.

Stranger by the Lake's producers or distributors elected not to submit it for the Queer sidebar at the Chicago Film Festival, which is almost certainly a sign that, high on their Cannes reception, they are eager to have it embraced as a great film and not "just" a gay film. Neither claim fully holds water, and yet there's admirable weight behind both, and they need not be seen as opposed. Stranger by the Lake is, at minimum, very solid, and I see why other viewers hold it in even higher regard than that. At moments, or in aspects of performance, sound, and montage, "great" feels like the word. Stranger is also very gay, not just by dint of sexual plumbing but via the nuances of its structure, worldview, and mood. Grade: B

Cannes Film Festival: Queer Palme; Best Director (Un Certain Regard)

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