Stranger by the Lake won Alain Guiraudie the best director award in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section, in the same year as Blue is the Warmest Colour collected the Palm D’or. Of the two gay themed films in many ways Guiraudie’s is a more challenging proposition for general audiences than Abdellatif Kechiche’s three hour lesbian romance. However beyond the presence of gay characters and explicit scenes there is no real comparison; Blue is the Warmest Colour sought to explore the universality of first love, whereas Stranger by the Lake is a film confrontational in its presentation of a sub-set of gay life defiantly outside the hetero-normative mainstream (and most likely niche even within the wider spectrum of LGBT lifestyles).
The film is entirely set in a ‘cruising’ spot by a lake in the south of France frequented by gay men. It is no spoiler to say that the film does not ever leave this location, moving between shore-side waters, the beach, and the woods beyond. Rarely has such an open natural environment been as claustrophobic. The story concerns three of the regulars who visit the spot. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) a young, carefree (some might say reckless) man looking only for physical contact; Michel (Christophe Paou) a virile Alpha male with an impressive moustache and the cruel looks of a 70s Italian film star; Henri (Patrick D’Assumçao) a portly middle-aged loner, who sits down the beach, observing but not interacting.
This does not become a love triangle. Franck is attracted to Michel, there is no attraction to Henri, and Michel and Henri do not interact. Franck and Henri’s relationship is seemingly platonic. Henri claims to be heterosexual and just likes the spot because no-one bothers him. One of the themes of the film is voyeurism, that perennial fascination for filmmakers. The characters occupy shifting points of view, either watching, being watched, or asking to be watched. Henri sits apart passively looking in from the fringes.
The film is explicit from the start, Guiraudie favours some extremely interesting camera placements and angles that leave nothing to the imagination. The frequent sexual content includes un-simulated sex (‘real sex’ as the BBFC would have it). The early section of the film is comic in tone. It initilly appears to be a sexually explicit farce as Franck’s attempts to get some satisfaction are amusingly foiled. But then something happens that alters the drama completely. In a rare moment of non-consensual voyeurism Franck witnesses to an act that moves the film away from the shallows and into dark waters.
A more detailed synopsis would make this sound like a genre piece, a modern version of a Hitchcockian psychodrama that makes its gay subtext declarative. With its concentration on nudity and sex, one might think of a gay themed version of Brian De’Palma’s Body Double (or at least the more explicit film DePalma wanted to make), or the type of straight-to-video potboilers that filled video store shelves in the nineties. That’s not how the film plays, Guiraudie has no real interest in fashioning a film that can be easily digested. The deceptively simple story hides a great deal of depth and ambiguity (something also intrinsic in the film’s title), it is often frustratingly and deliberately obscure regarding the motivations of its characters.
Guiraudie favours long takes, often from fixed angles, this gives the film a dispassionate clinical gaze. The most intimate acts displayed with a lack of intimacy. The editing is also very measured. In a manner not dissimilar to some found footage horror films (in particular the Paranormal Activity films) nearly identical shots, taken at different times, are repeated creating a dense layering of imagery. Each day begins with the same shot of a wooded area used as a car park. The composition never changes, one begins to recognise the cars and idly wonder to whom they belong, and then a slight change in the pattern creates a dissonance.
In some ways the film is anti-genre – certainly it subverts genre – it is a mystery in which there is no mystery, a whodunit where the answer is never in question. The real mystery lies not in the plot, but in complexities of the human heart. Stranger by the Lake presents a clear and present danger, but does not try to be frightening in the debased, fairground manner of much modern horror. Instead it exploits the anticipation of catharsis, of violent release, and extends this past the point of agony in a tantric dance of dread.
This is a film destined for a niche audience (its UK distributor is a specialist) but it should be seen by all fans of adventurous cinema. It has a pace that will be described as ‘slow’, but I was never bored. I exited the screening thinking I had merely seen a very good film, but it has stayed with me and grown tumescent upon reflection. I now know I saw something very special indeed.
This review originally appeared on http://www.chrisandphilpresent.co.uk