Directed by Alain Guiraudie and photographed beautifully by Claire Mathon, Stranger by the Lake has drawn comparisons to the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock, and rightly so. The atmosphere is one of chilling tension and highly controlled camera work, with point-of-view shots being used to draw attention to the role of both the cruising space and the cinematic space.
For the most part, cruising spots are associated with casual, no-strings-attached sex. They offer a space where the everyday repression of sexuality is ignored; a place where individuals can explore their sexuality without fear of being attacked or shamed by the conservative hetero-normative members of society. Within mainstream cinema, cruising has been vastly underrepresented, with the leather bars of William Friedkin’s Cruising and the problematic space in Shame being two of the better known examples. With Stranger, Guiraudie goes against the darkened interiors of these films, by using picturesque exteriors that display nature and beauty. He seems to want to avoid any negative surface-level imagery, yet he’s also striving for a realist depiction of the dangers that accompany any desire. By employing tension and suspense to an otherwise positive experience, Guiraudie is fleshing out the pros and cons of cruising.
Never once does the film stray from the lakeside location. Days become nights, and the passing of time is made visible through the repetition of the opening shot: a surveillance-like image capturing the differing placement of cars in the parking lot. While Franck is the protagonist, it is actually the location itself that commands the most attention. The isolation of the area gives the appearance of privacy, yet there is always someone watching. Plus, mise-en-scène and camerawork convey a space that is more than meets the eye, as images transform depending on perspective, constantly bringing the idea of imagined borders into question.
The film begins with Franck arriving at the lake. He parks his car, walks to the beach, offers a friendly hello to a friend, and goes for a swim. When we first see the other men on the beach, they are blocked in the same manner as the cars in the parking lot are. Everyone seems relaxed and in the open, yet, a few minutes later, when we see the same image from Franck’s point of view in the water, there are men lurking in the background; hovering around the border that separates the beach from the trees. Later in the film, a character describes how cruising is to be done only in the woods, and with this shot, Guiraudie is showing how the border between the two spaces is really non-existent.
The next place Franck looks is to the left of the main beach area, where he sees Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao) sitting by himself, fully clothed, in the middle of the frame. Henri’s unassuming demeanor acts as counterpoint to the opportunistic gaze of the other men at the beach. When Franck and Henri talk, there is little evidence of sexual attraction, yet the two men are very fond of each other. Their continued exchanges give balance to the film, while also highlighting the notion of love without sex.
It’s also no coincidence that Franck first lays eyes on Michel (Christoph Paou) while sitting with Henri. Michel is the opposite of Henri. He is tall, dark, and handsome. He swims and walks with the confidence of a man who knows what he wants, and manages to still look good when sporting nothing but a pair of runners and a Tom Selleck-style mustache. Franck falls for Michel right away. From the first time he sees him, he knows he wants him; and when Michel heads to the woods, Franck quickly ditches Henri and goes after him. The only problem is that Michel is with his partner Pascal (François-Renaud Labarthe).
Later the next day, Franck heads to the woods on his own and finds a man to have sex with (who is never named), and the scene is significant for a couple of reasons. First off, before settling on a spot, the camera zooms in on all the old condoms, cigarette butts, and used tissue littering the ground. The shot is in direct contrast to the beautiful exteriors of the sunlit trees and the lake, as Guiraudie seems to be emphasizing the reality of the space; pointing to the unsavory aspects everyone seems to push aside and ignore. The idea is then further reinforced when the man insists that Franck use a condom for oral sex. Franck brushes off the suggestion, replying that he trusts the man. Astonished, the man basically refers to Franck as a fool, and it is in this instance that we start to get a sense of Franck’s viewpoint. He doesn’t come here to play it safe, he comes to have the best time he can. He views the area as a space where he can commit to desire. The man he is with views it as something else, though. When the two of them start to get physical, the man stops when he sees that Eric (Mathieu Vervisch) is masturbating while watching them. The man tells Eric to get lost, and the moment is a little absurd considering how justified the man appears, acting as if he is entitled to privacy in an area anything but private.
The scene ends with Franck ejaculating, and the film cuts to an extreme long shot of two men play fighting in the lake. As Franck moves in for a better look, we acquire his point-of-view, and we see that Michel and Pascal are the two men. With the camera static, we watch as Michel murders Pascal. Franck never draws Michel’s attention, but he does move closer to the beach, the camera slowly mimicking his movement through a gradual zoom and dolly. The effect is subtle yet important to notice, because it showcases Franck’s state of mind: he is now even more drawn to Michel – and so are we, the camera literally pulling us in. The scenario is similar to Rear Window, where we witness an event we don’t fully understand through the eyes of a character. The difference being, in Hitchcock’s film, the murder is ambiguous; in Stranger by the Lake, Franck’s increased desire for Michel is ambiguous. And keeping in mind that the last scene ended with Franck climaxing, Guiraudie is establishing a parallel between sex and death. It’s as if he’s suggesting that Franck is losing more and more of himself as he pursues desire.
The murder is not as important as the narrative suggests. While not a MacGuffin in the Hitchcockian sense, the murder is more of a symbolic plot device used to draw our attention to the darker elements of cruising. Of course, there is the AIDS allegory that runs through the film, but Guiraudie is going for more than that. He wants to unpack how the cruising space functions, and how there are an infinite number of sensibilities and desires among the inhabitants. With isolation comes the illusion of control, but obviously not everyone can have what they want.
Franck is searching for love in the wrong place – or at least, the wrong kind of love. He’s chasing romance through lust and desire, and knowingly engages in self-destructive behavior by idealistically pursuing a murderer. While we know loneliness and boredom play a part, it’s the unknown that truly peaks our interest: why is Franck so attracted to danger? And characters within the film seem to wonder the same thing. For example, later on, a detective (Jérôme Chappatte) asks Franck how he and the other men can return, unfazed, to a place where a man was murdered. But what does this “unknown” amount to? Aside from obvious genre tropes (creating mystery and tension for the thriller), the film speaks to the complexity of existence. Franck is lost. He yearns for meaning and connection, yet doesn’t know where to look – or possibly, how to look. He seems stuck, and as viewers, we passively sit and watch, unable to assist, also unaware of how he should proceed. Maybe Franck has to work out some inner-demons from his past. We have no idea. What the film remind us, though, is that humans are unsolvable puzzles.
For Franck and us, Michel is an embodiment of excitement and danger, and when he appears on screen the following evening, again, we see him through Franck’s point of view. Rising out of the water, nude, and in the same manner as after the murder, he walks toward the camera, appearing larger with every step. The two men then talk for a few minutes before engaging in oral sex. Michel goes down on Franck (without a condom), and at one point, Franck puts a hand on the back of Michel’s neck and guides Michel’s movements in a manner similar to how Pascal was drowned. The act showcases Franck’s strong desire to be wanted, as he is containing Michel’s power, using it as evidence of love.
In terms of our position, Guiraudie is drawing our attention to the possibilities for cinema to be a medium for positive queer representation. In Stranger, sex is photographed with a variety of angles, featuring a large amount of bare flesh, and while the images are graphic, they are never gratuitous. In fact, they are passionate and narratively relevant. When Franck and Michel are first intimate, the sequence is tense and arousing, as Guiraudie is successfully utilizing queer desire within a genre film. Not only do we fear for Franck’s life, but we also marvel at the realistic depiction of male on male sexuality – a combination not normally found in the thriller genre.
Franck is a lonely person taking strength in the fact that a man capable of cold-blooded murder wants him. Franck tells himself it is love, but at this point, they don’t even know each other’s names. As a few days pass, Franck tries to get Michel to see him outside of the beach, but Michel shows no interest in a traditional relationship – his excuse being that they will get tired of each other. When Franck later confronts Michel on the subject, he tells Michel to stop expecting others to adapt to his way of life, yet Franck is guilty of the same thing. He uses the cruising space to fill a void.
Franck stays with Michel despite his better judgment, convinced that he has found ‘the one,’ but Henri is skeptical. He tells Franck to be weary not only of Michel, but of relationships bound by lust. Henri explains how he used to ignore the benefits of friendship, but now that he has met Franck, he understands love on another level. And as their connection blossoms, Franck and Michel’s starts to stagnate when Michel becomes increasingly possessive. He doesn’t want to commit to Franck outside the space of the lake, but yet, he hates the idea of sharing him within it.
There are these rules many of the men believe the space exhibits, but Guiraudie wants to point out how fluid and non-objective these boundaries really are. Consider also how time operates in the film. We don’t have any idea in what year the events occur. In fact, the space seems to exist in an amalgamation of differing periods. A place where each individual seems to see what they want to see: Henri praises the communal aspects of being able to talk to whomever he pleases, yet is never shown speaking to anyone other than Franck and Michel; Franck senselessly cruises around looking for pure desire, imagining others are doing the same; Michel sees it as an detached community where the rules of monogamy apply, literally removing one partner before moving on to the next.
In some ways, the three characters are comparable to Freud’s version of the psyche: Henri is the superego, Michel is the id, and Franck is the ego. Franck is the go-between. He is polite, sensitive, and aware of others, yet totally driven by pleasure, so much so that he risks death in the name of desire. In other words, he has been giving in to the id. Henri sees this, and by the end of the film, he provokes Michel, dying as a result. The superego can only access the id through the ego, so when Henri approaches Michel on his own, he knows Michel is going to kill him. He does it, though, because he knows Franck is too caught up in desire to help himself.
Echoing the point-of-view shot from the beginning, Franck is in the lake when he realizes Michel has gone after Henri, and when he enters the woods, it is too late. The film ends with Franck alone, terrified, and surrounded by darkness; the screen cutting to black. Michel is still on the loose, and Franck is at the point of no return. Desire has led him on a vicious circle, as he will most likely die in the same place where he so desperately wanted to feel alive. By setting the entire film in a single space, Guiraudie is able to show how dangerous it is to be stuck in a singular frame of mind. Cruising can be a positive experience, but when it becomes your entire reality, you leave yourself no room to grow. Franck made the cruising space his whole world by expecting desire to be his answer for everything – not realizing that love is multifaceted.
— Griffin Bell