L'INCONNU DU LAC (Stranger by the Lake)

There have been few "specialty" films in recent times to have been as rapturously received as Alain Guiraudie's intriguing yet finally underwhelming drama since its unveiling in the Cannes 2013 Un Certain Regard sidebar. Somewhere between a wry sex comedy and a fatalistic, old-fashioned film noir, Stranger by the Lake is an apparent twist on the classic thriller trope of the innocent who fell head over heels for a criminal - only, in this case, everything takes place under the sun, in a small beach by a lake in rural France, and the lovers are gay men who use the beach as a Summertime cruising spot. Simultaneously classic and modern in style, both transgressive and respectful of genre tropes, Mr. Guiraudie's latest has made critics and film buffs swoon thanks to its cinephile references and stylistic approaches.

     Unfolding over a series of days, with the same establishing shot of the improvised parking lot marking the passage of time in an abstract ritualised manner, the story sees local regular Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) strike a friendship with the straight loner Henri (Patrick d'Assumcao), who comes apparently just for time alone, and take up an impulsive relationship with the handsome, muscular Michel (Christophe Paou). Soon after, though, Franck sees Michel kill a rather jealous boyfriend, in a sequence shot from a distance that combines the ambiguity of Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (is Franck seeing what he thinks he's seeing?) with the voyeurism of Brian de Palma's early 1980s suspensers (why can't Frank look away from it?). As most thrillers, Stranger by the Lake is a tale of erotic lust and romantic desire intertwined and transposed to the open-secret underground aspect of gay life that is seldom pushed into the open; hence the near-constant references to William Friedkin's controversial Cruising, which was also set in an underground of sex and desire.

     It's precisely that unlikely mash-up of genre and niche that has made Mr. Guiraudie's film such a hit with the arthouse crowd, eventually taking to its literal consequence that very French concept of la petite mort, orgasm as the death of something inside. It's a tale that goes deeper and darker as it moves forward, its darkness eventually conquering the brightly illuminated Summer sun, exposing in the process the loneliness and need for contact and caress of the "strangers" passing by the "lake". Yet the explicit sex scenes, which merely transpose into homosexuality what has been a fixture in heterosexual cinema for a long time, surround the film with a whiff of provocative transgression that can distract from the central concept of the danger of love. And Mr. Guiraudie's distancing, abstract handling can become occasionally too rigid and mannered for comfort, while making a point of always placing its characters in the landscape to both contrast and underline their humanity. There's always a sense that the director is holding back a story of caution thrown to the wind in the name of personal release; and, in that push and pull that mirrors the push and pull itself of desire and survival instinct in his lead character, Stranger by the Lake ends up in a curious, suggestive limbo, neither a total washout nor a complete success.

Cast: Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou, Patrick d'Assumcao, Jérôme Chappatte, Mathieu Vervisch, Gilbert Traïna, Emmanuel Daumas, Sébastien Badachaoui, Gilles Guérin, François Labarthe
Director: Alain Guiraudie
Screenplay: Mr. Guiraudie, with the collaboration of Roy Genty and Laurent Lunetta
Cinematography: Claire Mathon  (colour, widescreen)
Art directors: Mr. Genty, Mr. Labarthe, Mr. Lunetta
Editor: Jean-Christophe Hym
Producer: Sylvie Pialat  (Les Films du Worso in co-production with ARTE France Cinéma, M141 Productions, Films de Force Majeure)
France, 2013, 96 minutes

Screened: distributor advance screener, Lisbon, November 14th 2013


Popular Posts