By Mark James.
Call it Le Cruising. French filmmaker Alain Guiraudie stages a stripped-down rendition of William Friedkin’s 1980 gay serial killer thriller, set by a lake in the French mountains. Awarded a directing prize at this year’s Cannes, Stranger by the Lake handles its subject much more ably than the still-phobic Pacino vehicle. Guiraudie takes a placid locale, puts a handful of naked men in front of the camera, and spins a measured, insightful, and at times chilling portrait of the uneasy proximity of death and desire, evil and eroticism, and love and complicity. He evokes the languid tempo and camaraderie that many depictions of gay desire completely miss, but still manages to film some of the frankest and most explicit gay sex scenes this side of the porn industry, and delivers a rebuke to technologically-deterministic critics of cruising apps by showing an analog version that can be as instrumental and depersonalizing as Grindr. Though at times it seems as if all of this is in the service of a moralistic condemnation of gay pleasure, Stranger by the Lake is a minor classic, a real feat of filmmaking.
Fresh-faced Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is a type native to gay culture: the adult twink. He’s slim and generically handsome, eager to make new partners, and when he reveals himself, he’s a tender romantic. Franck arrives at the cruising spot ready to swim, sunbathe, and fuck; instead, he strikes up a friendship with an ostensibly straight man, Henri (Patrick D’Assumçao), with whom he sits and talks, watching the whole beach from a remove. But he comes back the next day, game to try again. The wind blowing in the trees and the lapping of the wavelets on the gravel shore seem to enchant the place, and the primordial scene of naked men watering and sunning themselves lends an Edenic tenor to the whole affair. Rumors of a giant silurus somewhere below the waters emphasizes that anytime a director shows us Eden, it’s to remind us we’re watching from after the Fall.
There is no music in the film, and not a single building; there are cars and roads, though, but barely any clothes. The existence of women is brought up exactly twice. With its focus on a little idyll, a pocket of life seemingly removed from civilization, Stranger by the Lake depicts a highly specific, if perhaps dated, microculture. But its very specificity allows it to become an abstraction able to stand in for all of society. The innocence and guilelessness of nude, flaccid men likewise deepens and becomes more nuanced with the introduction of Michel (Christophe Pau), a cross between Tom Sellick and Freddy Mercury and a possessor of a jealous boyfriend who cuts short Franck’s flirtation with him. Franck, undaunted, retreats to the bushes for a brief dalliance with someone else.
Then, in an astonishing single shot, we watch the entry of evil into this charmed world. The act itself isn’t a surprise, but the moment you realize what you’ve seen delivers a real shock. There is no indication beforehand; and no privileging of the aftermath, either. It’s here that the film swerves into new territory and it is its strongest moment. Because of the narrative lassitude, there is no guidance for how to feel, and the moral questions of witnessing evil are posed directly to the audience. But Franck is our avatar in this world, and as the movie begins to adopt the form of a thriller, the sharpest moral judgments come when he doesn’t behave as we like to think we would.
Franck comes back the next day and approaches Michel as if nothing has happened. Denial and the pursuit of pleasure and the reluctance to hearken to all conceivable signs in the face of possible annihilation summons the early plague years. Of course, Guiraudie is too subtle to ever let any one of those claims really settle concretely in his world; the inexorable rhythm of the days under the sun defuse any explosive unveilings, and everyone’s still trying to relax, even when a detective shows up to investigate.
This intruder complicates the picture even further. At turns a refreshing moral presence who innocently calls Franck on his lies, voicing concerns about his conduct that many in the audience will share, he is also the emissary of straight society or of early AIDS activists who warned about the dangers of barebacking (such as France’s Didier Lestrade) , and as such questions the sexual ethics of the men by the lake. He lectures the men about how they don’t care for each other, appealing to their own senses of self-preservation. But in his soft bigotry, he doesn’t see the more complex picture Guiraudie paints: the men care for each other too much. The desire to be with each other, or maintain the fraternal experience, overrides any abstract consideration of the danger posed by any one of them. Maybe, the director suggests, this desire is founded in danger itself.
Now, as intriguing and well-staged as these questions are, they rather unfortunately echo familiar arguments aimed at pathologizing gay desire, especially in the wake of the AIDS epidemic. It’s almost impossible to consider the philosophical implications of the twinning of Eros and Thanatos if homophobes and gay moralists still tar elements of gay culture as “a culture of death,” or if there still hasn’t been an honest accounting of the history of AIDS because of the prevailing sense that gay people somehow wanted to drop dead by the hundreds of thousands. The questions that Stranger by the Lake ends on—Is Michel a serial killer? Will he leave the lakeside and prey on more people, or is he just a sociopath, a cold lover?—resemble this line of accusatory inquiry, and the denouement does them no favors.
Still, the combination of a rich moral texture, gorgeous evocation of place, an honest treatment of gay sexuality and deeply-felt emotional suspense is a rare feat to pull off, and Guiraudie only stumbles on the dismount. The elements of the film that may seem homophobic recede as we see that Guiraudie assesses the situation as an insider perhaps hoping to shine a light on gay male sexuality in a age of overwhelming pressure towards heteronormativity. Leaving us with no clad answers, Guiraudie asks his tribe for introspection. It’s a rare experience of moral adventure on screen, a nearly-perfect example of the minimalist case for cinema, and a gripping reminder of the excesses of desire.
Mark James lives in San Francisco and is a frequent contributor to Film International.
Stranger by the Lake was shown at the San Francisco Film Society’s French Film Now Festival.