Well, I’ll be damned. I didn’t think there’d be a day I saw a film that reminded me of the porn chic movement of the seventies in such a striking way. I’m not saying that Stranger by the Lake is a porn film, but director Alain Guiraudie certainly shares some sensibilities with directors of that age. No, this is a film that has more than sex on its mind, as the thrill of coming close to death is just as fascinating as the exhibitionist pleasures of cruising by the lake.
Where other queer films recently have had the exploration and budding development of sexuality on their mind more than anything else, the characters of Stranger by the Lake are certain of what they want. Most of these men love other men, just as they love every inch of their bodies. Guiraudie has no shame in reminding the audience of this, presenting every body — no matter how athletic or out of shape — in as much glory as it deserves. Some lay on the sandy rocks while others sit and talk, away from the risque pleasures that lie within the woods. Others, like the film’s main character Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), bear it all for the audience, even offering an eyeful with a surprising money shot that comes at just the right moment.
On one hand, the sexuality is an incredibly important part of the film, and yet, the dialogue between the men shows just how important these fleeting relationships could be to a man. Franck gets his thrills from many men, but the two that pique his interest the most are Michel and Henri (Christophe Paou & Patrick d’Assumçao respectively). While the latter offers him a friendship that he would have never experienced from a man in such a locale, the former has a dangerous appeal he’s never experienced. The excitement of near-anonymous sex is nothing compared to having sex with the handsome man you just saw drown someone. “Sex is great, but it doesn’t mean we need to have dinner and sleep together,” Michel tells him, and it’s dialogue like that between them that makes one wonder whether he’ll last another night. Each encounter may lead him closer to death, but, as they say, death can be quite the aphrodisiac.
Thoughts like that are what reveals the dark sense of humor laced throughout a film that plays it straight most of the time. Well, not straight by any means, but you get the point. Each and every mention of a catfish lightens the mood for a mere second before thrusting the viewer back into tension, be it sensual or mysterious. And this is where the film’s silence holds the greatest power, in delivering nothing but pure tension. Whether the scene takes place in the day by the shore or in the woods late in the evening, Stranger by the Lake relies on the lack of any sound unnatural to the scenario more than Claire Mathon’s gorgeous cinematography. One scene, in which Michel swims closer and closer to Franck, is plain terrifying. The mind may imagine the Jaws theme playing, the thought of Michel drowning this young man eating away, but there’s nothing there but the sound of water moving. Just as Franck finds this proximity to death a thrill like no other, the audience experiences a similar thrill, never knowing if screams of terror or moans of passion will follow the deafening silence of this near-isolated lake.
So impressive is the film’s knack for utilizing its slow-moving narrative and sound rather than sight that it’s ultimately rather jarring when some action does happen. Many have made these claims about some of Michael Haneke’s slow-burning films. But where those feel cold and calculated, Stranger by the Lake always invites one in for more with open arms (and legs). Nearly every minute of its near hundred minute length feels well-used, and the repetition of scenes of sexual activity, cars pulling up to the woods, and even those of the lake itself, contribute to that overwhelming anticipation of what’s to come for Franck that keeps the viewer shivering. The mixture of stark eroticism a la seventies pornography (the toned men that fill nearly every frame by the water nicely calls Wakefield Poole’s Boys in the Sand to mind) and voyeuristic mystery akin to Hitchcock is what makes Alain Guiraudie’s film such a great film; it’s as arousing as it is unsettling.
Directed by Alain Guiraudie; written by Alain Guiraudie; starring Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou, Patrick d’Assumçao, and Jérôme Chappatte; 100 minutes.