For those who think of the Internet as the big bad enabler of a gay culture full of apathetic sex fiends perennially in cruising mode, Alain Guiraudie's Stranger by the Lake reminds us that there's nothing necessarily digital about the will to cruise ad infinitum. More significantly, it portrays cruising as a danger-seeking and astoundingly repetitive affair, intimately linked to death itself—or the qualities that it promises. And though its characters have a fondness for barebacking, this isn't a film about HIV as fetish or as the ghostly monster hovering over gay sex. Desire itself, unattached to viruses or specificity of conduct, appears as monstrous enough.
Stranger by the Lake is a film about the incongruities of pleasure, about the lack of separation between wanting and not wanting. It's difficult to recall a film that understands gay desire, or desire tout court, so well and which translates it so strikingly. Its magnificence comes from the way it unfolds like a literary myth, with the visceral simplicity of a tragedy, while demystifying certain truisms about queer sexual practices: that gay men didn't instrumentalize one another as much before Grindr, that digital cruising has replaced face-to-face cruising, that flirting with death is in the libidinal makeup of only a pathological minority.
There's an acerbic austerity that structures the film, an authorial sadism that recalls Michael Haneke's. Guiraudie trusts the very banality of perversion to provoke terror unprompted, unaided, and unadorned. It's as though the narrative, a perfectly straightforward counter-fairy tale of sorts, like Mouchette, Bicycle Thieves, or even Haneke's own Funny Games, has been laid out by a bitter old queen who knows too much about how gay sex works to ever feel compelled to adjectify or embellish it. Its players take care of their own misery and demise; we just have to sit back and watch them wither and die an orgasmic and selfish little death, which, of course, no one else will notice. We only do because we've been led to cinematically witness it.
The film takes place at the remote shores of a lake somewhere in France, at some indeterminate point in time, where men go to have sex in the bushes and sunbathe naked on the sand in between fucks. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a comely but generic gay in his 30s, is one of the most assiduous cruisers in the area. And like most, he doesn't seem to be there to have as much sex as possible with as many guys as he can get. He's cruising by the lake because in the city everything conspires against the particularity of his pleasure. The open vastness of the lake serves, ironically, as a kind of refreshing and asphyxiating shelter. A place where the general culture's strategies for the deferral, if not annihilation, of bodily pleasure for bodily pleasure's sake come to a halt and things conspire toward consummation, or at the very least, its acknowledgement of pleasure. Interestingly, in this place where sex is so possible, Franck, and others, also use the lake as a social platform where friendships are formed, relationships happen, and even some version of monogamy. And where there's monogamy, there's betrayal.
Franck develops a friendship with a pudgy older man, the supposedly straight Henri (Patrick D'Assumçao), who comes to the cruising grounds every single day, sits down on his designated spot, and just watches. They chit chat about life, separation, and loss while observing men cruise like clockwork. Of course, Franck only has time for deep conversations with Henri until a potential sex partner materializes in the distance. In comes Michel (Cristophe Paou), a butch hottie with a Freddy Mercury moustache and an enigmatic glow—and unfortunately, a clingy twink in tow who cock-blocks him. One night, when most cruisers have gone home, Franck observes from the bushes as Michel and his lover swim together in the lake. Their playfulness suddenly turns lethal as Michel casually drowns the twink and swims back to shore. The next day, Michel is back, the dead boy's belongings are still on the beach, and his car still gloomily parked. No one notices his absence, or cares.
Just when you think the twist in Stranger by the Lake is the crime that shapes the narrative, you realize the real surprise is a much more profound and insightful one, which gives way to the film's brilliance as a cinematic piece of art (the suspense that follows the drowning is maddening) and as a philosophical provocation: death not as that which interrupts life, but as its erotic companion. Franck's attraction toward Michel becomes even more magnetic after he witnesses the killing. The anxieties triggered by Michel's proximity only serve to incite the pull toward him. The ambiguity of Franck's wanting matches the opaque excessiveness of the lake itself as the lovers come together and we move to the edge of our seats. When will Michel finish Franck off? Will Franck tell on him? Franck just can't help but approach him, fuck him, love him, fuck him again, look for him, miss him, find him, lose him, find him again (it's mad love), and, in one of the most suspenseful scenes in all of cinema, Franck swims with Michel in the middle of the lake, perhaps at the very site of the drowning, with nobody else around.
Stranger by the Lake, which feels like a dreamy collaboration of Hervé Guibert's melancholy, Guillaume Dustan's audacity, and John Rechy's perceptiveness, is at once undeniably French and extraordinarily universal. While its characters' sexual theater is too shameless and matter of fact (the cruisers only dread the law after a murder happens) to have occurred in a similar fashion in puritanical America, it understands desire to be a drive toward the constancy of death. The film offers ever so plainly, and so engrossingly (we are immersed in the lake with Franck and Michel), the very complicated workings of desire in a way only the greatest and most ancient myths have.