Prior to “Stranger by the Lake,” writer-director Alain Guiraudie’s films have been little seen in the United States, but he’s poised to make a very big splash with his sixth theatrical feature.
Winner of two awards at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, and a featured international selection at Sundance 2014, “Stranger by the Lake” is the kind of taut, low-key thriller that Roman Polanski and Alfred Hitchcock would very much admire. The former could certainly identify with the film’s use of water imagery, a recurring theme in Polanski’s own work, while the latter would appreciate the film’s bravura central sequence; in one uninterrupted wide shot, our protagonist hides in the woods and watches as one man drowns another in the lake before swimming to shore, getting dressed and leaving.
Not unlike Hitchcock’s penchant for icy blondes, Guiraudie plays with familiar archetypes as well, although his inspiration seems to come from vintage gay porn: blonde Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) has a smooth swimmer’s build, while the object of his affections, the mustachioed Michel (Christopher Paou), is darker, hairier and more muscular — le Marlboro Man, if you will.
Guiraudie’s plot unwinds with seeming simplicity but increasing complexity: Vacationing Franck comes to the gay area of a lakeside resort, where men cruise each other on the rocky beach and then follow each other off into the woods. Franck is smitten with Michel, who always seems otherwise occupied. One night, Franck witnesses Michel drowning his boyfriend.
Rather than alert the authorities, Franck takes the opportunity to insinuate himself into Michel’s life, only to discover that while his new lover is up for lakeside frolics, he doesn’t want anything resembling commitment.
The tension subtly builds — does Michel know that Franck was a witness? Will Franck attempt to blackmail Michel into further intimacy? Does Franck’s older friend Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao) suspect what’s going on? Will the Javert-like interrogations of Inspecteur Damroder (Jérôme Chappatte) cause someone to break?
Guiraudie embraces minimalism whenever possible — the film has long stretches of no dialogue, and there’s no musical score whatsoever. Still, the attentive viewer will pick up on the subtle shifts of plot and mood, thanks to the director’s storytelling skills and his very capable cast.
“Stranger by the Lake” also includes explicit gay sex scenes, many of them not faked; like the relatively tamer love scenes in “Blue is the Warmest Color,” they’re used here to establish character and to move the plot along (in one case, even establishing certain people’s locations while other events are taking place), and their matter-of-fact inclusion reminds us of the ridiculous MPAA double standards regarding frontal nudity when men rather than women are involved.
At one point, the inspector chides Franck and the other men for returning to a cruising spot just days after someone has died there, as though only gay men act foolishly or recklessly where sex is concerned. Most of us would know better than to intentionally fall into the arms of a killer, but “Stranger by the Lake” weaves such a spell of eroticism and desire that we can at least understand why Franck takes the plunge.