The erotic French thriller Stranger by the Lake will most certainly frighten the horses with its graphic depictions of gay sex. How graphic? Very — to the point that some will call certain scenes pornography. With that in mind, those who are upset by such things — and, for that matter, the purely willy-phobic — would be well advised to pass the film by. It’s unfortunate that the film needs to carry the kind of warning that will consign it largely to the limited realm of gay cinema. I can’t imagine another approach filmmaker Alain Guiraudie could have taken that would have worked to so completely evoke the sense of place that’s so essential to the film. That place is a strip of lakeside beach and the woods beyond that have become a gay cruising spot. This confined area, which the film never leaves, is nearly as much a character as any of the players. Its seemingly tranquil, laid-back atmosphere where casual sex is an accepted act defines the film.
Though it is very much a thriller, Stranger by the Lake is by no means a traditional mystery. The murder that sets the film in motion happens early, and there’s no question as to whodunit. We know, and our main character, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), knows, too. He had, in fact, been flirting with the murderer, Michel (Christophe Paou), and seemed to be getting somewhere. That is, until a man (François-Renaud Labarthe), who appears to be Michel’s boyfriend, shows up. Not too long afterwards, Franck — at twilight from the distance of the forest — witnesses the drowning murder of the supposed boyfriend. He knows who did it, but he is also, in film noir fashion, fixated on the murderer. His attraction overrides everything, and he is soon involved in an intense relationship with Michel. But it’s an odd relationship in that Michel limits their relationship to the beach and the forest. It might be almost idyllic, except that the victim’s red car remains perpetually in the parking area where Guiraudie begins and ends every scene.
The unease of the limited relationship is more telling than it might be were it not for the fact that Franck has struck up a friendship with a dumpy middle-aged man, Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), who is quietly in love with Franck in a seemingly sexless but intimate manner. Henri actually wants all the things out of a relationship that Michel won’t offer. But the situation changes on the inevitable day that the body is discovered. (And the red car that served as a reminder of what happened becomes an even more potent reminder by its absence.) Now, the murder can no longer be denied, but the question is how far Franck is willing to go to protect Michel — and possibly imperil himself in the process.
This is where the film moves from being quietly unnerving to being quietly suspenseful. Its quietness is the secret and the signature quality of the film. Even its central act of violence is muted by distance and twilight. The film is more interested in building a sense of dread than creating cheap thrills. The tone only changes toward the end — and only for a bit. Stranger by the Lake is almost detached in its extremely formal approach. Nearly every shot is grounded to a tripod, and camera movement is rare and generally subtle, reflecting the mood of the setting. Mostly, it works, though it occasionally keeps the film just a little chilly to the touch. It is certainly more cerebral than emotional. I wouldn’t want a steady diet of it, but as a break from the norm, it’s strangely agreeable. Not Rated, but contains graphic sex of the kind that wouldn’t even pass the MPAA board with an NC-17.
Playing at Fine Arts Theatre.