The opening overhead shot of a wooded car park adjoining a shimmering lake establishes the tightly circumscribed world of Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake. A marker for the passage of time in the film, this shot acquires more menace each time it’s repeated in Guiraudie’s hypnotically seductive thriller. The story follows Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a good-looking and easygoing young man who drives to the lake each summer day to enjoy the hedonistic pleasures of swimming, sunbathing naked, and cruising. Guiraudie captures the seductive thrills of the age-old gay ritual, which seems to occur wherever there’s sun, sand, and secluded woodland. The men—many of them regulars from the nearby town—all play the same game: watching, following, and then getting off with each other in the bushes. We get glimpses of sundry couplings through the foliage and observe the typical cruising rituals of invitation and rejection; most of the sex scenes are simulated, but Guiraudie doesn’t shy away from a couple of close-ups of clearly the real deal. Stranger by the Lake never leaves the naturist playground in and around the lake, mirroring the almost single-minded focus of the men who go there, though we get some occasional hints of their lives outside this microcosm.
Franck is currently out of work and looking for quick hook-ups, romance, or both. He has an endearingly sweet disposition, gently compassionate even toward the persistent admirer who won’t take no for an answer. He strikes up a friendship with Henri (Patrick D’Assumçao), a portly middle-aged logger who’s just broken up with his wife and has wandered over to the gay side of the lake. Something of an anomaly, Henri sits alone and talks to no one other than Franck; he doesn’t swim, nor does he seem interested in participating in the priapic activities around him. His relationship with Franck blossoms into a genuine, platonic friendship, which comes as a surprise to both men. The younger man, who keeps scanning the lakeshore for potential tricks, has his sights on Michel (Christophe Paou), a stud who looks like he might have stepped out a 1970s porn flick, complete with Tom Selleck moustache. But Michel seems to be partnered already. “How come the guys I like are always taken?” Franck complains to Henri.
The lake, which takes on different hues in the changing light of the day, is mesmerizing. Danger lurks, but it isn’t because of the 30-foot silurus, a variety of European catfish that, according to local lore, inhabits the waters. One evening, when spying on Michel and his ostensible boyfriend cavorting in the lake, Franck witnesses the latter’s drowning. The idyllic mood of Stranger by the Lake turns immediately creepy. With a flair worthy of Hitchcock or Chabrol, Giraudie ratchets up the suspense, expertly using the darkening shadows of dusk and the natural soundscape of wind, water, and animal cries. Franck doesn’t let on to anyone that he’s witnessed a cold-blooded murder, and over the next couple of days he and Michel become lovers, though Michel insists on keeping their relationship within the boundaries of the lake, refusing to spend the night with Franck.
What draws Franck so inexorably to Michel, despite his friend Henri’s advice against hanging out with the hunk, and to his own better judgment? Is he turned on by the possibility that he could become the next victim? Apparently the young man’s need for sex, companionship, and romance trumps morality or even self-preservation. Giraudie, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, is clearly drawing parallels between the unprotected sex that takes place in the bushes and Franck’s heedless flirtation with a killer. Early on, in one of sexual encounters, it’s established that Franck regards the use of condoms as very much of an optional thing. The lone police inspector investigating the crime scene articulately questions the moral and ethical values of the men who cruise there even after learning of the murder. But Franck’s behavior is all too believable and his conflicting impulses only too real. Even the seemingly balanced Henri has his own inner conflicts, which are hinted at in the course of the movie, but only surface toward the end. Having built up the tension to a breaking point, Giraudie doesn’t let down the audience. Stranger by the Lake moves toward a startling and bloody climax and then, as night falls on the lake, leaves us with a disturbing conclusion.
The New York Film Festival runs from September 27—October 13.