Sex and death are the prevailing themes of French filmmaker Alain Guiraudie’s new feature, STRANGER BY THE LAKE. The film depicts a gay cruising ground at a beautiful, secluded spot in what feels like an endless summer. But the serenity of the lakeside setting is in stark contrast to the violent and passionate acts that unfold.
This art-house thriller has all the power of a Greek tragedy, with the Adonis-like Michel (Christophe Paou) at its centre. This dangerous and alluring character attracts Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a regular at the lake and the confidant of corpulent divorcee Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), who provides insight into the dynamics of the cruising scene while himself remaining aloof.
The film marks a turning point in the way sex is portrayed in cinema, and has prompted debate about why it is considered acceptable to show graphic murder scenes, but not graphic sex. But while there is a heavy emphasis on sex in the film, it’s neither incidental nor gratuitous. In this sense the honest and exhilarating erotic scenes also represent an important step for gay cinema. Although it depicts cruising, STRANGER BY THE LAKE is not aimed at an exclusively gay audience. The general release and accompanying ad campaign have brought it to widespread public attention, and the themes are universal.
Guiraudie also manages to weave love and tenderness into the tale. In a recent interview with Dazed magazine, he said he wanted the film’s sex scenes to portray real intimacy and emotion: “I wanted to speak about desire and love, and now we’re able to speak of universal love with a homosexual story. It was quite a political question for me to show that this is possible.” The connections between love, danger and desire are distilled in the muscular and moustachioed Michel’s cruel intentions, and the non-confrontational Franck’s reaction to them.
A total lack of music on the soundtrack enhances the film’s realistic tone and naturalistic scenes. The use of natural light further heightens this effect, as we are made aware of the close of each day. The water and woods become increasingly sinister as the film advances, and the darkness conceals more than acts of lust.
The film’s truthful portrayal won Guiraudie Best Director in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes 2013. Considerable and deserved critical acclaim has already helped to establish STRANGER BY THE LAKE as landmark film. It is by turns beautiful and sinister, and leaves the watcher with a sense of unease.