An ordinary guy witnesses a murder, but he's too infatuated with the killer to turn him in to the authorities. That's the basic premise of Stranger by the Lake, a film which could have been made in the noir '40s with just a few revisions. With explicit sex scenes and a diabolically simple setup, French director Alain Guiraudie turns this thriller into an atmospheric meditation on an all-consuming desire.
One of the things which makes Stranger by the Lake so different is its setting, a lakeside which serves as a cruising spot for the film's cast of characters. Day after day, the men come to this lake with its warm water, rocky white beach and overgrown vegetation to swim, sun, and have anonymous sex. It's an odd kind of pseudo-community in which everyone knows of each other, yet they lack any personal connection with each other beyond the lake and occasional get-togethers at a local bar not shown in the film. It's in this lubed-up environment that we're introduced to Franck (Pierre Deadonchamps), a handsome, aquiline-featured man who is about thirty yet one of the younger regulars at the spot. Franck returns to the lake daily to swim, socialize and screw, yet there's a yearning in him for a more tangible connection. He forges a friendly, platonic bond with Henri (Patrick D'Assumçao), a stocky older gentleman who frequents the lake as a simple escape. Henri seems to be the only man Franck can relate to - until the arrival of Michel (Christophe Paou), an enigmatic adonis with toned body and '70s porn star mustache. Despite being attached to another man, Michel senses Franck's attraction and playfully flirts with him. Once the other men have left the lake at dusk, Franck spies Michel swimming with his partner, then methodically drowning him in the water. Despite this cruel, random development, Franck's lust for Michel intensifies and the two passionately explore each other's bodies while a police inspector (Jerome Chappatte) tries to determine whether the victim's disappearance was an accident or murder.
Stranger by the Lake delves into the limits of human depravity by depicting a lovely, real-time sense of place buffeted with surprisingly raw sex scenes. Most of the characters are seen lounging about in the nude, while the sex acts show just about everything considered de riguer in porn yet shocking in a mainstream film (convincing looking body doubles stood in for the actors). The scenes are bluntly done, erotic (and not for the squeamish) - yet they do serve a valuable purpose in depicting Franck's descent into pure hedonism. Despite all that, the gayness of the main characters is somewhat besides the point - it's the characters capacity for being so casually cruel to each other that's the main takeaway here. Director Alain Guiraudie uses a static, laconic structure which observes the small day-to-day changes in the lake area, building up an almost imperceptible sense of dread over the film's running time. It's also surprisingly funny at times, with the lake's regulars attempting to set ground rules in their mini-society meant to reject all forms of etiquette.
Taboo-busting sensationalism aside, Stranger by the Lake has some interesting things to say about uninhibited desire vs. reason. The characters of Franck and Michel are even-handedly written and nicely performed. Special mention must be made of Patrick D'Assumçao's reasonable Henri, the only man who comes to the lake not seeking sexual release (and the one person who warns Franck against getting further involved with Michel, after his true nature is revealed). Those with a taste for challenging, multi-layered suspense will find a captivating watch with Stranger by the Lake.
Strand Releasing's DVD edition of Stranger by the Lake preserves the film's naturalistic photography in a pleasant 2.35:1 widescreen transfer. Colors are vivid and lifelike without being too harsh, while light and dark levels add a measure of depth to the digitally generated image.
The disc includes Stranger by the Lake's original French-language soundtrack in a choice of 2.0 Stereo or a 5.1 Surround mix. The latter is quite subtle, but it's effectively used in the film's climax with setting the atmosphere. While the film doesn't include any music or flashy sound editing, the pristine-sounding dialogue is centrally placed with sound effects around the edges. Default optional English subtitles are also provided.
Recorded at the Melbourne International Film Festival, a 15-minute Interview with Director Alain Guiraudie is subtitled in a smaller yellow font which is difficult to read, but nonetheless contains some interesting info. The disc also includes the film's U.S. Theatrical Trailer and previews for other Strand Releasing titles.
Alain Guiraudie's suspenseful, erotically charged Stranger on the Lake may put some off with its frank depiction of man-on-man sex. They'd be missing out on one of the most interesting films to come along recently, however - an atmospheric, absorbing tale in which a lakeside setting takes as much importance as its characters. Highly Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.