With murderers among us, Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger By The Lake turns a sexually explicit peek at gay cruising into a political metaphor in the horror genre.
My Summer Of Love by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It’s getting kind of old hat, all this sex in cinema. From Roger Vadim’s Brigitte-Bardot-sex-kitten-fest And God Created Woman and Bernardo Bertolucci’s butter-wouldn’t-melt Last Tango In Paris, directors have been pushing the boundaries of acceptable sex in cinema. But now there’s a new wave in extreme sex. French directors have been simmering away with their sexual twist on extreme cinema, with Cathérine Breillat’s early films Romance X and Anatomie de l’Enfer through Jacques Doillon’s Love Battles and Jean-Marc Barr’s American Translation to the latest taboo-busting acts of transgression, François Ozon’s Jeune Et Jolie and Guillaume Nicloux’s La Religieuse, but the rest of the world has been getting in on the act too, most noticeably with Lars von Trier’s two-parted Nymphomaniac, James Franco and Travis Mathew’s co-directed Interior. Leather Bar and Mathew’s own I Want Your Love blurring the boundaries between feature film and pornography. And after the extreme sexual explicitness of Abdellatif Kechiche’s controversial Blue Is The Warmest Colour, Alain Guiraudie brings us its male counterpart with Stranger By The Lake – set among the gay cruising zones and nudist beaches on the shore of a lake in Provence. And it’s deliberately provocative and confrontational with its full-frontal nudity ad tedium, explicit scenes of gay sex and down-wind camera angles offering no respite for the squeamish. But shock as it might, there’s more to Stranger At The Lake than flaccid bronzing, blowjobs and cruising. And the sex is killer.
It’s Franck’s (Pierre Deladonchamps) first time at the lake this year. It’s early summer and it’s still quiet on the shore. But after a swim in the lake, he meets Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao) a portly lumberjack on vacation, who after splitting up with his girlfriend, prefers the gay side of the lake. He doesn’t sunbathe nude, cruise or even sit amongst them – keeping himself apart for some silence and reflection. But no sooner does Franck set eyes on Michel (Christophe Paou) than he falls head-over-heels in love, running up into the woods to find his moustachioed Adonis. Michel has a boyfriend though, and despite some action in the scrubland, it seems his chances with muscled Michel are slim. Until, that is, he witnesses Michel drown his boyfriend Pascal in the lake that evening. And suddenly Michel becomes dangerously available.
There’s something very Eighties about Alain Guiraudie’s L’Inconnu du Lac. Whether it’s Michel’s chevron tache, Franck’s tight-fitting T-shirts or the outdated Citroëns in the car park, the shores of the lake at Sainte-Croix offer a timeless paradise where love is free and the sex is casual. But there’s a homophobic killer on the loose – one who moves from playful splashing to murder in a heartbeat. And as Franck falls for this silent killer, it’s clear that Stranger By The Lake is more than a film about violent boyfriends. Creating a new dramatic intercourse between sex and death, Guiraudie’s film dramatises the AIDS crisis, as each kiss and caress is haunted by death’s cold shadow. Guiraudie hints at his pestilential subtext with the bloodsucking sheatfish that lurk beneath the lake’s surface or the men’s carelessness with unprotected sex. But it’s Franck’s attitude that reveals the most – willing as he is to take his chances with the killer in the blind hope of sex and love. Like the rest of the gay community on the edge of the lake, that ignores Michel’s boyfriend’s abandoned towel and car, Franck lies to the police, reprimanded by the unorthodox inspector on behalf of them all for not caring when one of their own is murdered, uncaring so long as they can keep on having sex. It’s a strange way of looking out for each other.
Like the silurus, perhaps they’ve just been lucky until now, evading death by not being in the same place at the same time. But death has come to Verdon, and like all good horror films, it comes out of the lake. And as Michel embraces Franck by his car at night, his forearms caught in the cabin light, this is the love that can both hold and kill. With a daring and delicate performance from Pierre Deladonchamps, L’Inconnu du Lac reaches its climax in the final reel, when Michel goes on a killing spree (murdering the suicidal Henri and the meandering Inspecteur Damroder), the film swinging unexpectedly into a nailbiting thriller as a vulnerable and semi-naked Franck crouches in the scrubland until after dark to escape his marauding, murdering boyfriend. As he emerges from his hideout, first whispering and then shouting after Michel, there’s a desperate anxiety as Franck would rather be killed by his lover than live alone in the dark without him.
With echoes of Camus’ The Outsider, Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger By The Lake is a fascinating and sometimes hilarious peek behind the curtain of gay cruising. The men flirt, have sex and talk, but it’s not until over halfway through that we learn their names, and for the most part Franck, Michel and Henri remain strangers – both for us and for each other. There are some brilliant directorial touches, such as Guiraudie’s decision not to take any of the action away from the lakeside. And as each new day begins with the tree-rustling and engine-thrumming of Franck driving his car into the car park, there’s a hypnotic beauty to this repetition. Just like the sideways glance as the men constantly eye each other, which is repeated in Henri’s backwards look at Michel, beckoning him into the woods not to have sex but to murder him. With neither much guile nor heed, Michel makes for an utterly unconvincing killer, and as such Stranger By The Lake only really functions as a metaphor – for a gay community in the early days of the AIDS crisis refusing to face up to reality. But, making a drama out of the crisis, Guiraudie brings an unexpectedly thrilling twist to this devastating story of murder in the dark.
Stranger By The Lake is released on 21st February 2013 in the UK