‘Stranger By The Lake’ opens Friday, February 21st at the Music Box Theater.
Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger By The Lake (L'Inconnu Du Lac) (France, 2013) is refreshingly straightforward about its milieu – the entire film takes place at the fairly secluded side of a large country lake, where gay men have staked out a reasonably private haven for sunning, swimming, cruising and having sex in the adjacent woods. Some of the sex is single-incident anonymous, some couplings are regular visitations that nonetheless aren't a part of their regular lives (we heteros used to call that ‘swinging,’ and perhaps we still do), and a few lead to genuine long-term hook-ups. The film is certainly not wall-to-wall gay male sex, but there’s enough explicitness on display to ‘frighten the horses,’ as Mrs. Campbell might warn. If that sort of thing puts you off, bless you and off you go, but I must also lament the fact that you’ll be missing an excellent film that’s ultimately about how we all tend to behave in similarly intimate circumstances.
Because once we've settled into this very comfortable, almost idyllic setting, and taken the measure of the singular, yet not-at-all-atypical, small society that that has made this place their own, Guiraudie moves his film into intriguing behavioral territory. Our protagonist is Frank (Pierre Deladonchamps), a smart, great-looking, social-yet-unassuming recent arrival to the lake who is comfortable with both platonic just-good-company socializing and ducking into the woods from time to time for some mutual sweet relief. He befriends Henri (Patrick D'Assumçao), a portly older guy who keeps to himself, likes the location and vibe, but isn’t all that interested in the available sex. Frank is also, from first encounter, extraordinarily attracted to Michel (Christophe Paou), a very toned and handsome guy, and a powerful swimmer, who unfortunately seems to be spoken for by Pascal (François Labarthe).
Standard narrative cinema abounds with men who can’t stay away from women they know are ‘bad news,’ or women who can’t resist hard-edged ‘bad boys’; ruffians, thieves, criminals, even murderers, can hold undeniably sexy sway over the better natures of many otherwise admirable characters. And so it is with Frank, who, even empirically knowing how dark Michel’s dark side can be, seems to willfully continue to pursue him anyway (Pascal is out of the picture, one of probably many casualties of Michel’s darker aspects). Frank’s not powerless or swooning – the attraction is certainly fueled by emotion, but Guiraudie’s pretty clear about Frank’s facts-on-the-table choosing to continue seeing Michel at the lake. Frank sincerely wishes to escalate the relationship - socializing beyond the lake, dinners, sleepovers - but Michel likes things the way they are, which, of course, only makes Michel even more attractive to Frank, a little more irresistibly unobtainable.
Guiraudie slowly insinuates the specter of danger, then death, into this small and exclusive world not as a consequence of specific behaviors, but as an inevitable consideration for any relationship driven far more by passion and selflessness than pragmatic complement. Frank, like many of us, doesn’t choose to fall in love with Michel, but, once he finds himself there, he must see it through, even if the results lead to tragedy.
On the surface, this scenario sounds like a modern-minimalist offshoot of the mid-century melodramas that directors like William Wyler and Douglas Sirk used to regale us with. But Guiraudie’s undeniable influence here is Alfred Hitchcock – the deft interweaving of the supporting characters, the strong sense of repetition in the deceptively simple but profoundly evocative visual structure (Claire Mathon is the impressive cinematographer), and the undercurrent of psychological dualities that keep us from guessing what will happen next. The final third of the film is as genuinely suspenseful as any film I’ve seen in the last few years, and Guiraudie’s conclusion, while seeming open-ended, is, in fact, the statement everything else in the film had been leading to.
Stranger By The Lake is being promoted, for better or worse, as a predominantly gay film for gay audiences, and that’s certainly a demographic that’ll be admirably served by this very good film. But I encourage all aficionados of smart, visually inventive psychological thrillers to check this out, and maybe push the envelope on your knowledge of, and/or comfort level with, a culture that, almost daily, is finally settling into just another normalized aspect of the way everything else works, and the way everyone else lives.