Written and directed by Alain Guirandie
Male bodies glisten in the summer sun while wandering eyes fall upon a murder that leads to a torrid love affair with a killer. This is the premise to Alain Guirandie’s L’inconnu du lac, an incredible thriller with the mood and atmosphere of a great horror. The murder seems almost incidental, as the dread and suffering of desire haunt all the proceedings. It is not even clear when this film is set, though we can guess that it lies somewhere after the AIDS epidemic and before the Internet boom. Does it matter? Context here lies in the outcast nature of the characters and the isolation of their stomping grounds.
Though set in a real setting, there is something almost mythical about the shining lake with the rumours of a creature lying below. The image of the glistening lake is immediately reminiscent of Phillipe Grandieux’s Sombre, a film with an iconic long-take of a faceless murderer standing before a shining lake. Sombre was an important film in the French New Extremist movement, a collection of films and filmmakers that clearly had an impact on Guirandie’s work. Described as “[a] crossover between sexual decadence, bestial violence and troubling psychosis” in many respects, it seems clear that L’inconnu du lac fits comfortably in this atmosphere.
One of the markers of some better known films of the movement is the wanton and outcast nature of its characters. They are, however, regarded as freaks or aberrations. They hardly fit into the world in which they find themselves. At its worst, many of the films come across as hateful, at best troubling. There is a sense of shock that transcends the human interests, and this is not explicitly a bad thing – it just presents a somewhat one-sided view of humanity, one that puts across the worst and challenges the fragility of our physical form. Taken to some extremes, the filmmakers point at the often horrific association with the soul and body, perhaps insinuating the moral implications of the body.
L’inconnu du lac plays on these ideas but removes the more graphic and shocking elements, for the most part. Though there has been much talk of the film’s explicit nature, aside from one body double penis ejaculating, all the sex is simulated. With filmmakers who have already breached the taboo of unsimulated sex onscreen, it becomes clear that Guirandie is attempting to make a greater statement about his characters and their world beyond shock and awe. Perhaps though, as one of the foremost queer filmmakers today, Guirandie is attempting to challenge heteronormative audiences with sexuality they might regard as somehow indecent.
The story certainly takes precedence over the sexuality of the characters. Sex is an important contextual marker here and contributes heavily to our understanding of character in particular. However, none are more revealing than the frank discourse and the power of the gaze. The conversations about life, love. and sex that take place between Franck and Henri are the highlight of the film. They offer a uniquely self-reflexive view on the cultural games associated with cruising spots and suggest society’s misplaced value of sexual relationships above all others. The chemistry that exists between the characters is also palpable, and reveals volumes about their personal ideology and their concept of the self. Pierre Deladonchamps, in particular, stands out in this, his breakthrough performance. He brings a nervous confidence to Franck, emitting incredible curiosity, innocence and passion. He commands so much power in his silence; his wandering gaze becoming an incredible compass of moral ambiguity throughout the film.
Power dynamics play a huge role in the film. The strength lies in how Guirandie is able to channel so perfectly through seemingly random sexual encounters a social structure of giving and taking. Guirandie takes this to interesting extremes by offering the idea that those of us who find ourselves at the bottom, in pursuit of those in control, are chasing after our own death. It’s a metaphor that is apt for the self-destructive nature of some romantic relationships, but also an interesting view on the structure of a society that leaves most of us at the bottom, chasing after impossible dreams and following words, ideas, and feelings that inevitably lead to our destruction. Through the personal, the story reveals greater truths about human nature. We return for a moment to the images of the snake-like monster that lies below the surface of this lake, evocative of the fantasy worlds of Greek tragedies. The image offers a symbolic vision of a real threat, and helps lend universality to what might otherwise be seen as a specific story. This film adopts a mode of discourse much like that of Socrates, offering answers about the way we live through the form of even more questions.
L’inconnu du lac is one of the most compelling films of the year. It offers a complex view of beauty, reminding us that the veneer of surfaces offers little input on the soul that lies within. In one of the most frank portrayals of sexuality in recent years, Guirandie transcends shock value and is able to reveal the natural grace and grittiness of human sexuality. Unfortunately, the discussion of the provocative nature of the film has taken away from the subtle humanity and nuances of the story. A sight for the eyes and mirror to the soul, L’inconnu du lac is a film not to be missed.
— Justine Smith