Alain Guiraudie's transcendent Stranger by the Lake is a film that can be shortly synopsized as a summertime cruising thriller, but warrants a book-length treatise on its scary, yet resonant, exploration of carnal and psychological minutia. The story follows a fit Frenchman, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), who hits an unnamed beach almost daily and falls for Michel (Christophe Paou), who might be one of the most persuasive “wrong men” in cinema's history. Michel is a tall, mustachioed dish to whom Franck can't help but gravitate, going against the advice offered him by his paternal confidant, Henri (Patrick D'Assumçao), and even defying his conscience when he watches Michel murder a former lover. Through Guiraudie's magnificently visceral technique, which achieves a unification of Franck and the viewer in both perspective and attraction, Stranger by the Lake fearlessly plumbs the dark corners of desire, or as Guiraudie tells it, the limits.
Meeting me in the Elinor Bunim Munroe Theater at Film Society Lincoln Center, which, starting today, will be showing a retrospective of Guiraudie's work in celebration of his latest release, the 49-year-old filmmaker opened up about the wide terrain his modestly mounted thriller covers. He spoke of his fixation with the 1970s, his attraction to the mythical, and how Stranger by the Lake, which has stirred up buzz for its virtually unadulterated sex scenes, is ultimately an existential study.
At times, it's tempting to read Stranger by the Lake as an allegory for HIV/AIDS, particularly when Franck is warned by a police detective that there's a “gay killer” in his community. But that assessment feels too simplistic for a film that invites so many readings about desire. Can you say to what degree the fear of HIV/AIDS factored into the crafting of the story?
The fear of AIDS didn't really play a role for me in the film, but on the other hand, it's very important, because AIDS has to be present. It has to be something that hovers over the whole film. Because it was something that, at the time, had profoundly affected our love relationships, and our sexual relationships. So while there wasn't the fear of it, it was something that was always present for me in the film. And it's not just homosexual relationships, it's also heterosexual relationships—both were really changed as a result of AIDS.
You said “at the time.” Are you referencing when AIDS was more of a dire crisis for the culture, or when your film takes place? Because the film doesn't seem to be set in any specific time period.
The film really takes place now, but, as in pretty much all of my films, there's always a mixture of the present and the 1970s, because that was the period when I grew up. I think the film is also a reflection of this progression of how things changed from the 1970s to the present. Because, in the 1970s, you had a sexual liberation movement in which people felt free—they felt emancipated. Now, in this post-AIDS period, we have a return to a more puritanical way of looking at things—a return to a sort of puritism and conservativism that has turned sexual freedom into a more consumer-type sex. So that element that was present in the 1970s has really changed, and not for the better. We're seeing a darker approach, where sex is something to be consumed. It doesn't have that same aura that it had in the 1970s.
So, this film's depiction of the raw power of desire—is that your way of responding to, or combating, these shifted views of sexuality?
[laughs] Well, I'm not really someone who's fought hard against consumerism either! I think what I really wanted to do was make a film not just about desire, but our relationship with it, and, more specifically, my relationship with it. And since you mentioned this “raw desire,” I'd like to say that, from a political point of view, one of the things I really wanted to do was to put sex and sexual organs in the forefront of the film. I wanted to show that they are also part of desire and great love. Traditionally, we've seen these great love stories in major motion pictures, but none of [those sexual elements] are seen. If we want to see the act of sex and the sexual organs, the only real place has been pornography. So my idea here was to reunite the two—the idea of the tremendous passion, and the great love story, together with the physical side of it.
I don't want to get too hung up on the film's forthright physical acts, but to what extent did the actors actually participate in the sex scenes? Clearly, we see that they're engaging in some of them, but was there a line that was drawn in terms of how far they would go?
We used body doubles for the non-simulated sex, and it was something I talked about with the actors a great deal. I wanted to see just how far they were willing to go, and that was just as far as they wanted to go—they didn't want to actually do it.
I think the most fascinating thing for me was the way in which Franck seemed more drawn to Michel after witnessing his crime. It made me think of the allure of the illicit and the “forbidden,” no matter its source. Do you think that's something the queer community can connect to more, given that we've historically been trained to believe our desires are wrong?
I don't really go along with the idea that, in the gay community, something illicit is going to make it more attractive, because I don't think that's any more true there than it is with heterosexuals. And I felt it was very important to show that Franck really wanted Michel before the murder, and that he continued to want him after the crime.
I guess I'm just thinking that, in relation to my own experience, I went more than half my life being told that my homosexual feelings were wrong. So when I finally submitted to those feelings, defying the learned “wrongness” of them made it that much more liberating. I'm not saying I'd go courting a killer, but there's something fundamentally relatable about the all-stops-pulled extent of Franck's desire.
Well, what I really wanted to do here was to show that Franck is someone who obeys his own desire, and he follows it to the limit. He doesn't yet know what the limit is, but he's willing to follow his desire to it. We see Franck questioning himself, we see him concerned, but there's never a level of excitement because of the danger. I think, in this sense, my point of view is one that's really very romantic, and I think it's also something that's not often shown in films—someone who's willing to go as far as his desire will take him. That's really the central question of the film: “Just how far am I willing to go to live and experience what I want, and be satisfied?”
There's also something very implicitly mythic about this tale, and this world. It's almost imperceptible, but there were moments when I thought Michel might be imagined, like when he walks out of the water as if he's some mythical figure. As a viewer, I'm very glad he's not imagined, but did you ever consider making those sort of impressions more literal?
Well, first of all, it gives me a lot of pleasure that you say that. One of the reasons is, as a filmmaker, I really tried to show everyday life as something mythic—to give it a mythic dimension. As far as the character of Michel, I tried to do that with him too, especially in the scene where he comes out of the water. In that scene I was almost treating him like a Greek god who's come out of the water back to where Franck is sitting. I also think that the actual structure, and the way the film is set up, in that all of the action takes place in one single location, is something that also reflects Greek tragedy. That's an element I worked hard to show as well.