Pierre de Ladonchamps, Christophe Paou and Patrick d'Assumcao
Screened at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard section, Stranger by the Lake won best director prize as well as Queer Palm award. It was mostly termed as the other gay film in the festival, the famous one being "Blue is the Warmest Color" of course. The thing that surprised me when I watched this film was why not many people talked about this one with as passion as they did for the Palme winner? Somehow Stranger by the Lake didn't stir any controversy as much as I could see it being an infamous film. I am against all that but just out of curiosity I am asking. But I am glad it wasn't controversial, I never want any film to get caught up in a controversy on the matter of what it shows and how it shows it. We all talk about the 'male gaze' since most of the filmmakers are male and thus topics about females and females stripping down to do intimate scenes filmed by male filmmakers are looked down upon mostly because people think the depiction is from a different perspective and it affects the outcome. I couldn't stop thinking about this film for many reasons of course but one being the fact that what if it was directed by a female filmmaker? This exact film the way it is? Could it have been as controversial as Blue? Anyways, the good thing is that I ended up loving Stranger by the Lake way more than I initially expected. I didn't know much about it except for the fact that this film involves cruising, naked men and a Hitchcockian murder plot. My anticipation was peaked when Cahiers du Cinema announced Stranger by the Lake as their best film of 2013. So Stranger by the Lake is directed by French filmmaker Alain Guiraudie. I have never had the chance to watch any of his earlier films. It would be much better for you guys to watch the film yourself because the experience you will have is something I personally cannot simply write about. The plot of this film being quite simple is made so engrossing by the filmmaker. It is entrancing and unbelievably intoxicating on the senses. I'll just say that picture a beautiful lake that is surrounded by hills and forests. There aren't any houses nearby. Now imagine naked men, sunbathing, swimming and having sex in the woods. Peaceful, sensual, sexy. Now to make things more interesting, add a mysterious person, a murder and a tale of obsession and there you have it. That is how you picture it but to experience it much deeper, all you have to do is watch the film because mere words cannot do justice.
I have so much to talk about with this film. For me to experience and take away so many things from a film without having a pre-defined and pre-determined ideas of something that have already been talked about in such lengths is always a fun thing. Just ten minutes into Stranger by the Lake and I was already hooked! It is rare to be so sure that you are going to love a film based on few minutes. But the film gets even more interesting later on so you can imagine the kind of pull it had on me. Alain Guiraudie never shows that lakeside beach as some sort of resort or a place where bored or curious men just come for pleasure, though they do that. He never shows in the entire film, anything else than that very place. There isn't a single shot that happens outside of that area. So this place in itself seems like a community of sorts, a paradise but a deadlier one. It is repetitive of course as every other day you see the place where cars are parked, then the beach, then lake, then the forest. Our eyes and ears in the place are in the form of one Mr. Franck (Ladonchamps), who claims that he isn't a frequent visitor there. He is young, good-looking and surprisingly gentle as far as his personality goes. He isn't naive so to speak but comes across as a guy who has control over him except for his desires. He becomes friend with another man, Henri (d'Assumcao). Henri is somebody who never participates in either sunbathing on the beach or cruising, he isn't even good-looking. He just sits quietly on the rocks and thinks about everything. His wife left him and he has nothing else to do than to just find pleasure in the calmness of that beautiful place. There is another man named Michel (Paou) who is extremely good-looking, mustached, athletic and very mysterious. Franck immediately notices him and then slowly develops attraction for him. Michel on the other hand already has a boyfriend with whom he often goes to the woods but Franck is helpless. He has sexual encounters sure but the sheer pull he feels in the presence of Michel is different. Everyday he comes to the lake, lays his towel on the stony beach and his eyes constantly looks for Michel. The build-up is as erotic as one would expect when Franck tries to get Michel's attention. Little does Franck knows that he is going to pay a price eventually for that.
So on this lakeside beach, identity doesn't matter. We don't even learn the names of these main three characters immediately. Even the fourth person that dies, Ramiere. That isn't much of a spoiler because you know a person will die and he isn't an important character. So everyone there are strangers and the men accept that as long as they can have each other. Everything outside of this community doesn't matter. You get what you desire for as long as you go by the rules. The rules are self-inflicted and subjective of course. The murder happens and it threatens the peace and quiet of that area. The protagonist Franck witnesses the murder but keeps the secret to himself for his gain. He isn't ruthless or cold-hearted per say but well, lust is lust. This isn't any different from the society we live in. As long as you are benefited, you keep quiet. And for every gain, you endanger the entire community. And that happens here as well when Franck never tells about what happened to anybody, not even to the police and potentially sets a killer on the loose. Now let me just talk about that sequence itself. The murder scene has to be one of the greatest shots of all time. It is an uninterrupted, 4-minute POV wide-shot (Franck sees it but we never see Franck himself). The victim is drowned, the killer gets out of the water, he dresses himself and passes through the woods and to his car. Franck sees the murder from the hill and hides in the bushes once Michel passes by. It is as chilling, spellbinding, shocking and mesmerizing as one could imagine. The sort of atmosphere and intensity that is built is outstanding. The build up towards that scene in itself is ingenious. Franck has an encounter with another man, the jerking off and orgasm is explicitly shown. He finds himself alone after that and begins looking through the woods. That is when he hears some voices which are a mix of intimate moaning and fearful screams. Eventually, the death itself brings Franck and Michel closer. Lust-sex-death. At that point, the death and sex have similar feelings of intensity and pleasure. Guiraudie literally removes the line. Since we are watching all that from the inner-most perspective of Franck, the death though horrifying means that the path is cleared for these two men to finally be together. The eventual scenes of sex between both these characters are the most passionate scenes of sex between two men I have ever seen in a film. The mix of desire, love, lust, sexuality and intimacy is overpowering. Franck begins to lose himself in Michel and develops deeper feeling for him, who himself never wants to take these encounter outside of here. He'll rather fuck a guy out in the woods than in his home. He'll rather be seen with him here then outside. The mundane rituals of household, being a boyfriend etc all sound boring and simply trivial to how he feels doing all that he does with Franck at the beach and in the forest.
There are some interesting moments of dark comedy that goes on. Small moments specially with Henri who is the most interesting and colorful personality among all the men. Then there are interesting use of words that resonates with the choices the protagonist makes. His first encounter with an unnamed man and his recklessness to not bother about protection during the act makes that man question him. He is surprised that Franck so easily trusts random men, you never know what they carry (inside their heart or their body). And of course, what happens later on with him and the consequences are all in front of you. The film does raises questions about trust issues and our refusal to never really know a person as long as he/she looks good and is good in bed. Cruising is fun but you simple cannot trust strangers. Sex is fun but why give up your life for few minutes of heavenly ecstasy? Yeah I know the obvious answers and that is where this film really works to diminish and blur the lines. That is one of the reasons why I loved this film so much and why I love cinema in general. These men come here to live their deepest and most intimate desires and fantasies which they cannot fulfill otherwise in their real lives which has the rules that one simply follows and not what one makes. Love and relationships are important there not random acts of sex. Dinners, dates and weddings and not the sheer pleasure of running into hot men in the woods or on the beach and doing it. Relationships have a meaning there but then there are simple pleasures and desires that don't need one. Stranger by the Lake succeeds in raising such questions. It dives so deep into the queer relationships, cruising culture, the meaning of society and being an individual, issues the deadly silence can raise, death/crime all at once. The filmmaker never intended to make this film as a message or cautionary tale, which though it is but it simple lays out all the cards, gives you an experience in all its glory and then leaves you with your own conscious and decision-making for the future.
Stranger by the Lake has a great use of POV shots. It keeps you in the shoes of the character with different feelings at once. Then there are some casual shots that gives you an outside look and succeeds in giving us a rational look to the ongoing act, whichever that maybe. The place itself is so gorgeous. The lake and the beach, the forest and the hill. The film is overrun by silence, the place to so peaceful and serene. Silence is what drives this film and gives it that distinct, still and curious look. The actors in the film do their job very well. They don't disappoint with bad acting or the usual poker-faced acting of such 'erotic' films because this is much more than that. The decision of the filmmaker to have the actors stripped down and to have them show everything in such close-ups even during the ongoing acts is quite brave. A rarity, the most explicit scenes featuring male nudity I have personally seen. Whether it is the sexual scenes, capturing the beauty and shooting the film in the usual arty way that it does, driving the film more on the feelings than plot and incorporating all that with the genre element is masterful. The film is as much erotic as it is thrilling, it is low-key for sure but so taut and alluring. Both voyeuristic and intimate in nature as well as broad. The film sneaks up on you from nowhere and leaves you completely shaken up. It is thought-provoking in terms of how it takes loneliness and the wish to connect with a person and puts it in a scenario where people prefer sexual interaction over anything else profound, reminiscent of our world. It is very slow but never boring. One of those films where as I mentioned earlier, the attention span is kept for the entire running time. Extremely sexy, erotic, sensual, alluring and scary. Featuring an ending that couldn't have been better if it was resolved. A deadlier trance and an unforgettable experience. Stranger by the Lake is one of the best films of 2013 and is something not to be missed.