Stranger by the Lake (2013)
Written & Directed by Alain Guiraudie
Franck frequents a nude beach that doubles as a favorite spot for gay men to cruise and hook up. He befriends Henri, an older man recently broken up with his girlfriend. The two chat for a while every time Franck arrives, and he learns Henri appreciates the quiet of this side of the lake. Later, Franck sets his eyes on Michel, an incredibly handsome man who already appears to be attached. On his way home, after a late afternoon tryst with another beachgoer, Franck stumbles upon a strange scene. From his vantage point, he witnesses what appears to be a murder and Franck believes he knows the murderer. The police begin asking questions as Franck and Michel’s relationship blossoms and the beach starts to lose the splendor it once possessed for our protagonist.
Stranger by the Lake is a film all about the conflicting emotions of desire and anguish. The beach is not a skeevy, shady place. The movie is filled with bright colors and lets the light coming streaming in so we feel as these men do, free to pursue each other, given a moment of idyll in an otherwise cruel world. This is why when the murder happens it contrasts so sharply with the tone of the rest of the film, an intentional bit of dissonance. Director Alain Guiraudie continues to film the picture in the same bright tone and lets the characters bring the darkness into the story until the third act when events play out under the setting sun and eventually puts Franck in the pitch black night of the forest.
Guiraudie does not shy away from the sexuality and the acts of sex his characters engage in. One of the first shots is of fully naked men walking or lounging on the beach. Genitals are in plain sight yet the camera doesn’t emphasize them, they’re just there. Guiraudie said in an interview that he never cared for the presentation of sex in films like William Friedkin’s Cruising or the more contemporary Blue is the Warmest Color. Sex in these films is sensationalized as violent or titillating. Guiraudie sought to bring out the poetry of sex and uses his pastoral setting to frame the encounters between characters as arousing but also natural and warm. There are a few scenes of unsimulated sex where the director employed body doubles, and it is seamless with the performances of the actors. He succeeds in separating sex acts from being purely pornographic, making it clear that pornography denotes a style of presentation and purpose.
The murder mystery portion of the film is very typically French, no music to underscore nefarious acts and all the facts laid out before the protagonist and the audience. The tension comes from Franck’s seduction and conflict over the knowledge he possesses. No one he encounters, once the murdered man’s body is found, expresses much concern about the loss of life. A remark is made of frustration that now the police will be trolling around the beach all summer so it might be better to find a new spot. There’s an unspoken understanding of the danger and risk that comes with anonymous sexual encounters. Everyone is seeking a physical connection while pushing away real intimacy. Franck is openly gay in his public life but finds that most of the men he meets at the beach are closeted, married to women, and using this place as a means to escape into their true desires.
Stranger by the Lake is a confidently made dramatic thriller that understands that being character forward causes the eventual threat to feel more perilous. The audience has come to enjoy the quirky conversations between Franck and Henri and don’t want the peace of this retreat spoiled. The introduction of an element of evil causes more than just Franck’s safety to be threatened. It feels like an entire haven of peace will be destroyed forever by the actions of one evil person.