Early on in Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake, we see two men nearly collide as one knifes through the waves towards the other. The look they exchange is one that foreshadows a powerful bond, the frustration of which will eventually tease out the narrative to a nearly unbearable level of tension. Stranger by the Lake is not exactly a thriller, but contains many of the elements of one. It follows Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a young gay man who frequents a cruising spot at an unnamed lake, and his obsession with Michel (Christophe Paou), a muscular Adonis whose Tom Selleck-like mustache is as remarkable as his swimming ability. Late one evening, Franck witnesses Michel drowning his lover in the lake.
It’s a similar premise to Hitchcock’s Rear Window, if the witness were able-bodied and totally in love with the killer. Because of those particulars, Stranger by the Lake progresses into a fascinating examination of lust, power, and apathy in the face of evil.
Guiraudie was the recipient of the Best Director award in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes (a sidebar to the main competition set up with the intention of encouraging “original and different” works). Stranger by the Lake is beautifully made, at times astonishingly so, and its reception as an “outsider” work at the competition is likely due to its highly explicit sex scenes, which include filmed ejaculation and seemingly unsimulated oral sex. In fact, body doubles were used for close-up shots, and Guiraudie has commented that the characters’ varying levels of sexual precaution (more than one exchange addresses the issue of whether or not to use a condom) did not allow him to take the sex scenes as far as he wanted.
In the context of both Franck and Michel’s wavering self-control, the sex feels appropriately visual, with lust heightened by a recurring theme of voyeurism, and at times mercenary. In these scenes, Guiraudie is not just showing us sex, but also his characters’ capacity for tenderness, the strength of their animal needs, and their sense of obligation to one another.
But for all its boldness, Stranger by the Lake is interestingly concerned with repression. Franck is young, particularly in relation to his friend Henri, but is neither recently awakened to sexual pleasure nor unable to act in his own interests. We see early on that Michel is the object of his desire, and once he witnesses Michel’s violent side, he proceeds much as he imaginably would have otherwise, his guilt surfacing in mock versions of relationship issues (Why won’t you stay over? Do you miss your old lover? Do you think of me the same way you thought of him?) His ambivalence and inability to act provide the story with its placid, gentle tone, and create a reason for the terrifying power that Michel possesses over him until the film’s conclusion. Franck’s unwillingness to weigh desire against long-term concerns, an issue raised repeatedly by Henri, makes him in some ways more culpable than his sociopathic paramour.
There is an underlying sense in the film that action, whether it represents Franck’s sexual identity or Michel’s violence, is validated by the presence of a witness. Men lurk around, emerging from the woods without warning, and the characters frequently find themselves in configurations of three. There are also rumors about a dangerous silurus (we never see it, but a silurus is a big, disgusting catfish) lurking at the bottom of the lake. These parasitic formations at first appear innocuous, and eventually collapse into violence. Still, though voyeurism and exhibitionism are instrumental to the story, they aren’t the endgame. Maybe that’s why Stranger by the Lake is able to avoid tawdriness (and there are plenty of films that use voyeurism and tawdriness well; De Palma and Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool come to mind.)
Stranger by the Lake doesn’t feel exactly like anything I’ve seen before. In an interview included in the press materials for the film, Guiraudie commented that “the good thing about a lake is you always turn to face it.” One of the amazing things about his film is the way that seething body of water becomes the nucleus for so much orbiting activity. Part of that achievement belongs to Claire Mathon, the director of photography, who gives the lake and its surroundings a feeling of life. Guiraudie’s nuanced screenplay, with its many ambiguities, also deserves credit.
Stranger by the Lake also doesn’t use a lick of music, instead incorporating ambient noise to express isolation, elation, and later a desolate kind of fear. In its attention to splashing water, shuddering leaves, and wind-filled trees, Stranger by the Lake is a small miracle of sound design, far more expressive than the action sequences I normally associate with technical achievements. More than any other element, these environmental sounds immersed me in a disquieting fear that saturates Guiraudie’s film, and ultimately remains unresolved: the fear of being alone.