Stranger by the Lake – Sex, lies and cruising

Many comparisons have already been made between Alain Guiraudie’s latest film and Hitchcock’s own thrillers. Indeed Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake (2013) does have the basic DNA of a Hitchcock film: a murder, mysterious strangers and endless secrets and lies. Yet here the comparisons end. Director and writer Guiraudie has created something infinitely darker, a complex story wrapped in ambiguity that explores themes such as sex, relationships and human nature. Yes, Stranger by the Lake (L’inconnu du lac) is similar to a Hitchcock film, but it actually would be more apt to call it the modern, more mature cousin of a Hitchcock film…with added emphasis on one particular word found in that director’s name.

Stranger by the Lake (L'inconnu du lac) (2013)

Guiraudie’s film is a love story with a difference. During the summer Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) visits a lake every day where he sunbathes, swims and occasionally hooks up with the other men who frequent the area. This lake is a gay cruising spot you see. One day Franck meets two new faces at the lake – one a lonely older guy who sits happily by himself (Patrick d’Assumçao), the other a handsome, moustached man called Michel (Christophe Paou). Franck immediately falls for him, despite the fact that Michel already has a partner (François-Renaud Labarthe). After staying late one night after an encounter with another man, Franck witnesses a shocking altercation out on the lake between Michel and his partner. Despite what he saw Franck just can’t keep away and as he starts to fall more and more for Michel, he finds it ever harder to walk away even when he knows he should.

The plot may read like your average thriller, but Stranger by the Lake is so much more than the usual ‘whodunit’. In fact it is actually one of the most beautiful and atmospheric films you will see this year. Claire Mathon’s cinematography brings the landscape to life in lush shots that show the beauty of the land, yet while used alongside Guiraudie’s expert direction also hint at something unsettling beneath the surface. This unease is felt throughout and is something Guiraudie competently explores in his script. He creates a taut psychological story, one that on the surface is a gripping murder mystery, but that in actuality explores underlying ideas of nature (both human and otherwise) and love. His portrayal of the gay cruising scene is shocking in its frankness, not least in the use of real unsimulated sex (through the use of body doubles), but is needed in order to show these encounters for what they are – a chance to have some fun, yet even more so a chance to connect (albeit temporarily) with another person. No wonder the lonely figure of Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao) chooses to visit this particular side of the lake after splitting up with his wife.

Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) meets the lonely Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao)

The dialogue is sparse, Guiraudie letting the image and the feeling of each scene do the talking. There is no external soundtrack, just the pleasing sounds of the surrounding nature (we often hear the gorgeous sound of the lake water lapping). This not only sets the scene but also adds an undertone of menace as we anxiously wait to see what happens next, a feeling that increases as we slowly begin to realise that this lake, already hiding a cruising spot and now hiding the scene of a murder, is far from peaceful.

The tense atmosphere of the film is heightened through Guiraudie’s choice of location. Set solely at the lake of the title, it has a claustrophobic quality to it as the passing days melt into one for both the men who frequent the lake and the viewer as they watch. This repetition of these endless summer days could have been disastrously dull in the wrong hands, yet Guiraudie keeps the story interesting through that use of underlying dread. He uses this feeling of repetition not only to show the monotonousness of these men’s lives and their encounters, but also to lead us into a false sense of security, slowly letting us get to know each of the characters (in particular the main character of Franck played superbly by Pierre Deladonchamps) before Guiraudie suddenly pulls the carpet out from under our feet to plunge us into the more thrilling part of the plot. This in turn makes Stranger by the Lake all the more satisfying and gripping to watch and also makes the exhilarating ending all the more shocking.

Things start to unravel for Franck...

A story about relationships and the power struggles within them, as well as the everyday need for human connections, all wrapped up in a murder mystery tale (albeit a mystery that is already solved). Slow and reflective Guiraudie builds the pleasingly tense atmosphere with his confident direction and bold story up until its surprise ending. It is also nothing short of ground-breaking it its use of a single setting and through Guiraudie’s frank portrayal of the cruising scene. Some people might find the explicit sex scenes too much, along with the (almost constant) nudity, yet its use is justified and not simply there for the sake of controversy. Missing it will mean you overlook one of the strangest yet wonderfully compelling films of the year and a beauty of a film that is nothing short of art.

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~ by square-eyed-geek on May 20, 2014.

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