Film Reviews

Stranger by the Lake Alain Guiraudie

Rating - 5/10

Alain Guiraudie's erotic thriller Stranger by the Lake [L'inconnu du lac] establishes tension through repetition and a unique cyclical rhythm in a single locale.  By initiating each of the six fades to daylight with nearly identical shots, Guiraudie at first appears to play a curious cinematographic game of "spot the differences" between alluringly sinister pastoral images by the unnamed retreat in the south of France.  The approach successfully reflects a sensual duality from the milieu to the characters that is reminiscent of Götz Spielmann's Revanche (2008).  This interplay is intriguing, but it is unfortunately undercut by a series of alienating artistic decisions that revolve around an unbelievable sexual relationship between two men that is aggressively confrontational and explicit in its depiction.  Ignoring "less is more" in these circumstances but also opting for a sketched rather than fleshed plot with an early focal scene involving a drowning, the film often sinks into an off-putting sequence of near-pornographic exhibitionism.  More interesting than the trysts between men, notably Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) and Michel (Christophe Paou), is actually the outcast or passive interloper, middle-aged Henri (Patrick d'Assumçao), mythically coexisting inside and outside their love affairs.  As he rests solitarily among the beach's rocks staring into the depths, perhaps he's attempting to find more depth of character in this provocative portrait.

The significance of Henri's peculiar presence, his refrain from engaging in the liaisons that consume the men along the coastline, is patiently constructed.  Introduced as an object of the bare, youthful, and fit Franck's gaze upon swimming ashore in the crystalline waters of the lake, the camera slowly zooms in upon Henri's stocky frame, protruding from the clusters of rocks with a slightly oversized shirt, his belly hidden under fabric.  On the nude beach, he looks a bit like a literal fish out of water (perhaps he's the silurus/large catfish of mentioned lore), as this is not his usual scene.  However, when Franck approaches him, the two immediately hit it off, delving into intimate topics about past and profession; this conversational candor serves as the most starkly contrasted element in the film.  As Franck becomes sexually involved with various men who frequent the area, he does not seek their histories or the expectation of companionship- only casual, fleeting fulfillment.  But neither does anyone else.  (Things are indeed stranger by the lake).  This arrangement is exploited by the mysterious mustachioed swimmer named Michel, with the physique of a "Greek god" (as director Guiraudie describes), who catches Franck's eye in an impromptu display of agility and prowess in the water.  Unfortunately for Franck, Michel appears to be taken by a rather jealous lover named Ramière (François-Renaud Labarthe), who rebuffs Franck's advances.  But Michel, preoccupied with this new admirer, orchestrates a seemingly inconspicuous crime that would allow him to pursue Franck.  Little does he know that Franck accidentally becomes a witness to it from the hillside.

As the days pass in Ramière's absence (the remaining four-fifths of the film), it becomes clear the beach-going men have chosen to dismiss the incident in pursuit of their own lusts and "cruising" routines (to ensnare other interested partners).  It would appear, then, that not only is Michel or Henri a stranger by the lake but all of them to one another.  Developing but not fully demonstrating an adroit commentary on the AIDS epidemic through the men's extreme risk-taking, Guiraudie creates a universe where this lack of concern for names and identities rather takes on a surrealist or almost science fiction sensibility.  In an interview at the Melbourne International Film Festival, he even acknowledges it as such for viewers unfamiliar with the distinctly European environment.  While tension is retained throughout the film as a result of the intensely hypnotic landscape cinematography, it is abandoned in the attempted evolution of Franck as a believable character, as he too abruptly shrugs off the murder and the darkest qualities of Michel's nature.  Franck's infatuation with the bronze, chiseled Michel is most assuredly linked to the riskiness of his other behavior; and yet, on the other hand, when engaged in revealing conversations with Henri, Franck seems more conscientious and cautious than his promiscuity would indicate.  While this discrepancy adds a sense of unpredictability to the character and film itself, it simultaneously frames his foolishness and devalues his own sensibility.  Franck never speaks so frankly about Michel's dangerous allure; instead, it's Henri who seems more fascinated by the inevitable treachery by the lakeside.

Instead of steering the film in the direction of erotica, Guiraudie may have benefited from trimming the running time and increasing emphasis on Henri's role in Franck and Michel's liaisons.  This approach, however, may have unfavorably amassed comparisons to Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke, whose work often studies the maliciousness of human behavior, especially in bluntly brief bouts of violence.  The connection to Henri and the nature of violence remains curious indeed; while Guiraudie does not provide clear-cut answers, Henri's explanations about his own history and the analysis of the dynamics of the men on the beach brandish him a voyeur.  Therefore, the initial intrigue of the film is accurately reflected within his character.  Most of the other men seem to be fragments of a grand caricature- solely imprisoned, anchored by their own desires to the locale, while Henri's presence manages to break free and rise above the surface.  With a film like Stranger by the Lake stripped to near-narrative outline, its success lay in character study and contemplative images, but moments of intense psychology are foregone for the explicitness of sex that is diametrically opposed to their development.  The inclusion of such activity is necessary to the creation of a moralistic commentary, but the scenes' sheer intensity and forcefulness is a point of distraction, jeopardizing the integrity of the work.  Guiraudie attempts to lay bare the complex nature of sexual desire through nature itself but instead emerges with a film that is only remotely intriguing, leaving its viewers estranged.