Stranger By The Lake (L’inconnu du lac)
France (2013) Dir. Alain Guiraudie
This is going to prove to be a difficult review to write as I am sure some of my views and comments are likely to offence a certain group – specifically those this explicit gay drama is aimed at. But I shall try and be tactful as I can while being honest so please indulge me if you will.
During a hot summer Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a young gay man, discovers a cruising area for gays on a quiet stony beach hidden behind a small forest. They he meets Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), a portly middle aged man recently divorced and suffering from depression. While they strike up a conversational friendship it is the bronzed swimmer Michel (Christophe Paou) who catches Franck’s eye.
One night Franck sees Michel drowning his current partner in the sea. While horrified Franck is unable to confront Michel or say anything to anyone when Michel starts flirting with him. Despite being aware of the danger he is in Franck is unable to tear himself away from Michel even after the body is discovered and the police start asking questions.
The fact Stranger By The Lake is exclusively about gay men (and not a woman in sight) and the latest “mainstream” (so to speak) film to push the boundaries with its explicit unsimulated sex scenes is both a selling point and a likely deterrent for viewers. However there is a lot more to this film than gay sex – there is the central murder thriller being played out, it is an observation on loneliness and promiscuity, it is a psychological drama; the cast just happen to be gay.
If there is another setback for many viewers it is the fact the story unravels at a slow pace, with the murder not occurring until the 25 minute mark with the police, in the shape of the unintentionally amusing Inspector Damroder (Jérôme Chappatte) not arriving for another 35 minutes. Until then we are treated to lush visuals of this peaceful and glistening setting for this tale, a white stony beach that sits before a shimmering clear and very inviting expanse of water.
We meet the regulars of the site, some who sit in pairs, some alone and some who wander about looking for some fun, either to participate in or just watch. If anything there is no denying who gorgeous the photography is in this film which works as a kind of subliminal hook to keep the audience watching.
Michel attracts a lot of attention on the beach (must be the moustache!) as does Franck, who enjoys some action of his own but it is clear where his attention is. Franck also represents the impetuosity and daredevil attitude of youth by refusing to use protection in his sexual encounters, a policy not widely shared among the others. It is this recklessness that plays a part in his attraction and foolhardy devotion to Michel despite witnessing his murderous act and his later displays of possessiveness which border on the aggressive at times.
As much as these characteristics are clearly defined in their attitudes and their actions, both regularly and sexually, there isn’t much development in their characters, and we don’t learn enough about them outside of their cruising habits. This makes Franck a difficult victim in waiting to be fearful for since he effectively made his bed and deserves to lie in it. Michel doesn’t engender much of a positive reaction from the audience either, and while we don’t know what makes him tick (ego perhaps?) we do at least know we are right to be suspicious of him.
The most interesting character is Henri, who provides not just the heterosexual view of the gay community but is also the voice of reason and sanity. First and foremost why is a recently divorced straight man hanging about at a notorious gay spot? Is he looking for some thing different or perhaps he feels that an all male environment will help him get over his divorce? Or maybe he simply likes the view of the sea and the tranquillity of the location? Whatever his reasons are, Henri offers some universal pearls of wisdom that Franck ought to really pay heed to but sadly doesn’t.
After an almost 80 minutes of sun rinsed longueurs, verbal joisting and explicit sex scenes the final act is quite a tense and unsettling experience. What works in its favour is the lack of musical soundtrack, which is true for the entire film, allowing the serenity of the coastal setting to become a menacing and eerie silent backdrop for the night time horrors that await our cast.
Writer and director Alain Guiraudie has made it clear that he wanted to make a film that question how the gay community are seen by heterosexuals and, positive or negative, he has done just that. In many ways his boldness in being so audaciously and fearlessly confrontational with the explicit depictions of gay sex, which Guiraudie insists he presents in a sensual and tender way rather than being gratuitous. This last point will be debated by many and I am sure many will have reached for their remotes a few times during viewing.
Now this shouldn’t to be taken as a sign of homophobia but simple matter of taste; myself personally I even skip straight sex scenes in mainstream films – after all isn’t that what porn is for? That said while I was surprised to see some of the uncut sexual actions take place here, I wasn’t too surprised considering the precedent has already set by Blue Is The Warmest Colour and Nymphomaniac.
To that end I am unsure of my feelings for Stranger By The Lake. Artistically it is a good film with a story that deserves much more attention than it gets over its sexual content, the depiction of which has to be seen as a breakthrough for gay cinema. In conclusion, this is a film that requires a very broad mind when viewing.