L’inconnu du lac (Stranger by the Lake)
Written and directed by Alain Guiraudie
There is a certain simplicity in Alain Guiraudie’s L’inconnu du lac (Stranger by the Lake) not seen in many films these days. However, that is not to say this is a simple film; it happens to run deep with emotion, stimulation, and humor. The story is set in what appears to be the early 1990s in the south of France, where local men gather around a crystalline lake to swim, sunbathe in the nude, and cruise. Starring Pierre Deladonchamps as Franck, a sensitive and curious young man; and Christophe Paou as Michel, a seductively dangerous stranger, the film is suspenseful, sexy, and smart, not to mention beautifully shot.
L’inconnu du lac might be deemed a drama or even a dark comedy; others might consider it artistically pornographic. Yet at its core, it is a thriller, and a terrifying one at that. Guiraudie manages to take certain elements of the thriller genre and play around with them until they are almost indistinguishable. Michel even has certain characteristics that resemble that of a noir femme fatale; however, in this case, the sexual instigator is a sneaker-clad athlete sporting a neatly trimmed mustache. What this film manages to convey through fear is quite surprising. Franck falls in love at first sight; he is drawn in by Michel’s magnetism only to realize that this man he scarcely knows is a menacing stranger. For some reason, he is attracted to the danger, scared of him yet unable to resist trusting that Michel would never hurt him. This thought is exciting to him. He does not desire death, but he does desire its insatiable allure. Sex and death are closely linked and L’inconnu du lac makes an exemplary point to showcase this in such a simplistic yet suggestive way.
There is no music in the film, only the atmospheric sounds of water rippling and splashing, insects buzzing, pebbles crunching underfoot, the summer breeze rustling the leaves of the forest. In fact, as the story progresses, so does the sound of the wind in the trees, creating an unsettling tone. As the plot thickens, the mood slowly changes, from relaxed and sunny to dark and disquieting. The smooth camerawork and clever editing also help with intensifying tension and threatening impending doom. A series of similar shots are recurrent throughout the film, causing a jarring sense of déja vu as well as trapping the audience in a cyclical nightmare. There are only three locations used: the lake, the forest that surrounds the lake, and a small clearing in the forest used as a parking area; there is little escape from this paradise that is slowly being transformed into a claustrophobic place of torment and desire.
L’inconnu du lac is a thoughtful, well-made film. The story is great, and the actors do a fantastic job with these characters. They had to not only bare themselves physically, but emotionally as well. These men react to nature, one another and themselves brilliantly. As the film is near silent their bodies and gaze are the primary sources of language here. It is often what is not said that resonates the loudest. Presented in the Compétition International section of the 42nd Festival du nouveau cinema, L’inconnu du lac is a masterfully suspenseful film that must be seen.