When the young and attractive Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) arrives at a remote lakeside beach somewhere in France, it’s with certain familiarity. Franck comes to the beach every day during the summer to swim in the lake, lounge on the sand, and sneak off into the woods to have sex with anonymous men.
Franck’s everyday schedule also includes talking with Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), an older man of questionable-sexuality that stays just off of the cruising beach and stares at the water. Henri is Franck’s one true friend on the beach, but that changes when Franck first sees Michel (Christophe Paou), a strikingly masculine man with a thick Tom Selleck mustache that oozes 70’s sex appeal. Franck falls for Michel immediately, and finds himself unable to resist him even when he horrifically witnesses Michel go into the lake with a lover for a playful swim and return alone.
Writer-director Alain Guiraudie (“The King of Escape”) creates something of a Hithcockian thriller with the moody “Stranger by the Lake” – a film being lauded for its tone and whispered about for its explicit content. Indeed, the uncompromising rawness of the images may prove to be too much for some. An early shot of fully on-screen male ejaculation prompted a few immediate walkouts from the packed festival audience. Funnily enough, this shot directly precedes the game-changing murder scene that those more conservative viewers would find undeniably compelling.
Guiraudie does great work in building a sense of place in this glittering, sun-set laden, strangely eerie setting. All scenes take place within the confines of the lake and its surrounding beaches and woods, isolating us within this subculture we have voyeuristic access to.
“Stranger by the Lake” does feature graphic gay sex and pervasive, casual male nudity. The un-arousing, documentarian nature of these scenes works as a benefit by separating the film from the disposable late-night TV “erotic thriller” tag – this is the real deal. However, the sheer frequency of lengthy sex scenes hurt the film when they begin to stop enhancing the story at hand. The weight of any film’s scene choices needs to consistently be focused on storytelling, and I can’t help but feel that Guiraudie occasionally wanders into the territory of producing provocative images for the sake of pushing limits that aren’t always supported by the narrative.
The most relatable (and often humorous) moments come about in dialogue between Franck and the lone wanderer Henri. These two have the type of person-to-person friendship that’s lacking in the lust-impulse driven beach cruising. Henri, having recently parted ways with his wife, talks quite openly with Franck about lonliness, sexuality, and how he thinks “real” homosexuals act. As the film cycles through each day at the beach, Franck scans the rocks that Henri sits on to see if he is there and it’s easy to want him to be there in hopes at getting a few more well-written scenes out of them.
The bulk of the second and third act is dedicated to building overwhelming tension as to whether Michel will murder the love-struck Franck before a local police inspector (Jérôme Chappatte) is able to catch on to Michel’s first crime. We wait, on edge for the moment that Michel asks Franck to go for a playful swim.
“Stranger by the Lake” is no simple erotic thriller, it will do well at every LGBT-centric competition it competes in (it has already won the Queer Palm award), and deserves attention outside of those confines as an all-around intriguing drama-thriller. Guiraudie is not completely free from a sometimes-provocative use of sex, but his film mostly works and has lingering atmosphere.
U.S. Limited Release: January 24th, 2014
1 hr. 40 min.