Picking up where the New Queer Cinema icons of the 1990s left off (Gregg Araki, Todd Haynes, Derek Jarman), writer-director Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake makes no concession to straight audiences in its exploration of the culture of homosexual promiscuity and carnal male-on-male desire. The movie is filled with graphic sex scenes that leave nothing to the imagination — this film would make even John Waters blush — but there’s more at work here than shock value and sensationalism.
The story is set entirely on a secluded sliver of beautiful beach where men sunbathe in the nude and cruise the surrounding bushes for random hook-ups. One of them, the young Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), is an amiable fellow who befriends a straight, middle-aged man (Patrick D’Assumcao) who is lonely and enjoys their casual conversations. Mostly, though, Franck frequents the beach for anonymous sex, and Guiraudie uses wide angles and precise framings to allow us to take in the natural beauty of the lake in its entirety, rendering his protagonists as small figures on a large canvas.
The plot of Stranger by the Lake kicks in when Franck witnesses the handsome Michel (Christophe Paou) drown his lover, then wade out of the water, dry himself and drive off. Instead of horror or revulsion, the killing awakens a curiosity in Franck: He starts getting closer to Michel, and soon they’re sexual partners, although Michel refuses to do anything outside the area of the lake. The place is a refuge for animalistic impulses — for things these men can’t do out in the real world. When the murder victim’s body is discovered, and a detective (Jerome Chappatte) comes around asking nosy questions, a quiet tension enters the film. Franck lies and says he saw nothing. But why? And how to explain his growing attraction to a man who is increasingly showing signs he may be a psychopath?
Stranger by the Lake might have fared better with less nudity and sex (the actors aren’t always faking it), because the graphic content will scare off potentially curious viewers. But Guiraudie builds a strange, otherworldly aura that transcends prudishness, and the repetition of certain images (the parking area near the lake is always shot from the same direction) turns the film into an exploration of ritual and tribal behavior. This lake is a refuge, about to be stained by sin and blood.
Cast: Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou, Patrick D’Assumcao, Francois Labarthe, Jerome Chappatte.
Writer-director: Alain Guiraudie.
Producers: Sylvie Pialat.
A Strand Releasing release. Running time: 100 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Vulgar language, considerable nudity, graphic sex, strong adult themes. Not suitable for viewers under 17. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Wynwood, Miami Beach Cinematheque.