Written and directed by Alain Guiraudie
Having already won the Queer Palm earlier in the year at Cannes, French director Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake should easily endure as a confident and bold entry in the gay cinema canon. While it operates as a rigorously challenging experience, what Guiraudie has accomplished is nothing short of mesmerizing. The film carefully blends noir trappings with a suffocating milieu of harsh silences and muted glares. While the emotions on display are shifting and evolving, Stranger by the Lake manages to transcend even its own environment by becoming universal in its display of misguided passion and love.
Time doesn’t seem to exist during the endless summer in which Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) falls for the brutish Michel (Christophe Paou). The former is slender and traditionally handsome; the latter sports a muscular build and a ‘70s style porn-mustache. Franck is open to other men, but Michel represents his deepest, most impossible conquest. Their shared hanging spot is a secluded lake brimming with an eclectic bunch of “cruising” men. The only time we step outside of this serene setting is during the film’s repetitive shots of the lake’s parking lot. Normalcy appears to be in place for those who frequent the lake until one night when Franck witnesses Michel drowning his current partner. The drama seeps in as Franck’s infatuation with Michel appears to drown out the fact that Michel is a killer. An inspector eventually drops in to ask questions and gauge the mood of the lake’s regulars; no one, save for Franck, has seen a thing. For a film about explicit watching, Stranger by the Lake functions all too well as a lurid thriller. Whether it rivals Hitchcock (a common comparison) or not is moot, as it firmly establishes its provocative mood without ever letting up.
Before the sense of strangling menace sets in, Guiraudie frankly establishes the rules and regulations of the film’s environment: man-on-man sex, casual displays of full-frontal male nudity, and narcissism, all effortlessly coming together to produce an inescapable and singular world of desire and grey-tinged morality. Apart of this world, but almost existing outside of its sexually charged peripheral is Henri (Patrick D’ Assumçao), a heavy-set loner who quietly steals the film as he shares easy conversation with Franck on occasion. Henri’s view of those around him is one of objective clarity. Since he’s far removed from all sexual acts, his mind is one of the few unclouded by the lust surrounding him. If Guiraudie is inevitably linking sex with death, then he does so with cunning precision.
As Franck and Henri’s relationship becomes increasingly complicated and dangerous, the core dynamic of a man torn between love and danger grows startling and cold. The lake has been transformed into a place of pleasure and death, but Guiraudie strays from upping the genre ante as the soundtrack only consists of natural sounds and movements. There is no music, as the wind and the sound of the water work to stretch out the documentary-esque ambiance of the narrative as far as possible. Stranger by the Lake builds and builds, culminating in a final shot etched in such stark ambiguity and darkness; there is now no return to the glistening days that now seem like a distant memory to the film’s characters.
– Ty Landis
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 5th to 15th, 2013. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please visit the official site.