Stranger By The Lake *****
Starring: Pierre de Ladonchamps, Christophe Paou, Patrick d'Assumçao Director: Alain Guiraudie
Queer Cinema has had countless crises of identity over the years. With low audience figures, this very niche genre has suffered from its greatest pioneers transitioning to the mainstream and away from it, with low budgets often meaning low quality films that focus more on the sexualisation of its characters than its actual artistic merit or entertainment value. In that regard, Stranger By The Lake is a complete anomaly. Taut with tension, drama and sexuality, this is a film that has taken homosexuality at its most base, most explicit and at its darkest, but not lost its focus on telling a damn good story. Set around a French lake over the course of two weeks in high summer, anonymous but familiar faces all become embroiled when a young cruiser is killed in the lake. Witness to the crime, Franck (de Ladonchamps) becomes obsessed with the killer (Paou), aware of the danger of this violent man but fascinated by this risk. Despite the warnings and advice from an older man he befriends (d'Assumçao), he covers for his new lover to the police, alerting the killer that Franck may know more than he is letting on.
This is a film you will be glad was made by a European, without the meddling of studios or investors. Despite its tense storyline, this is very much an arthouse film, with long lingering shots, explicit sexual imagery and without a scrap of music on its soundtrack. It's a film that wouldn't have been palatable for an American studio and would probably have ended up like the disastrous 1980 Al Pacino disaster, Cruising. Like John Cameron Mitchell's sex opus Shortbus, this is a film about sex and removing the actual depiction of sex would have been disastrous. Cue a plethora of shots of oral sex, ejaculations and 70% of the film being played out by the characters completely naked. But while Shortbus often played the sex for laughs, Stranger By The Lake depicts it naturally and in context. When the characters disappear into the woods to have sex, we follow them into the woods and see them doing it; it seems the most natural thing in the world. Within minutes of the film's opening we are thrust into the action of these cruising grounds and, with the status quo set, this peculiarly insular and introverted world becomes a natural backdrop for such a story. It almost feels like a stock cautionary tale about the dangers of cruising. Even though Guiraudie takes no judgement of the actions of the cruisers, he underlines with a thick felt tip the reasons why cruising is a dangerous pursuit. Even though the characters see each other every day, barely anybody speaks to anyone else and nobody knows who these people are, who at moments they become very close to. By deliberately taking themselves to secluded spots, to experience each other one on one, they are placing themselves in extremely vulnerable positions, where anything could (and indeed does) happen and any witnesses would probably not tell. With the social shame that comes with cruising, its participants refuse to let their encounters creep into their normal lives and so their identities become sacrosanct, even to the point of letting a crime go unreported.
At one stage, the police detective comments that he can't believe that the cruisers keep returning, even though they know someone died there just days before. Franck's response is "we can't let it stop our lives"; for him, this sexual ritual is as much a part of his life as his job or his family. Even though we only meet a handful of the characters lurking around the water, we realise that a lot of these people don't identify as gay at all, with Franck a real anomaly amongst them. And it's this duality of secretive openness that Franck seems to find the most seductive. On the one hand, he finds it frustrating that the men he sleeps with don't want to go home with him after dark, so they can eat and sleep together; on the other, it is the killer's enigmatic and dark secrets that he finds the most attractive. Even though Franck is our everyman, it's also disturbing to see the risks he takes for his sexual kicks - at times he has a death wish, at times he just wants someone to look after him. This sexual contradiction is not just relevant for gay people, but in this context he reminds me of many gay men I know; he wants the relationship and he wants the kicks, but finds it hard to reconcile the two. The three leads deliver great performances, as characters entwined with each others' demise, as well as islands by themselves whose lives and external motivations we never see. We can only guess at what Franck's life is away from the lake, but every day we see him return like clockwork, with the same routine playing out over and over. It's unclear if the lake is situated near anywhere with a gay scene, but the lake appears to serve that function for its characters. In fact, the lake is so embroiled with the story that it becomes another character in itself. Bathed in glorious sunlight, the water glistens behind all of the scenes, giving an unusual brightness to such a dark thriller. And played out against the soundtrack of wind in the trees and water against the shore, the whole film feels sodden with the laziness of summer, with nearly all the action played out seated or lying on the shore. As a gay man myself, this was a fascinating film. Its 18 certificate is well deserved and I can't help but wonder how effective it would be for a wholly heterosexual audience as a result. Playing out like an Antonioni classic, it certainly has widespread appeal for the arthouse audience, even if more broadly it would limited to that niche group of gay films; but at least this would be a sterling addition to the "Gay & Lesbian Interest" category on Netflix, which is currently populated with cheap and almost insulting fluff.Stranger By The Lake deserves your time, as well as a wider audience than it will get, but with its recognition at Cannes and its international release, I hope this will lead to further similar releases from this brilliantly bold director, before the mainstream snaps him up.
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