At Cannes last year, a sexually explicit, queer-focused French film with two extraordinarily beautiful leads won over critics and audiences -- and we're not talking about Abdellatif Kechiche's Palme d'Or winning "Blue is the Warmest Color." While that film got a ton of attention, its male-centric counterpart of sorts (though think more "Blue Is The Coldest Color") -- Alain Guiraudie’s stunning "Stranger By The Lake" -- is just as deserving of it (and is finally out in theaters this weekend).
Featuring a narrative very much like what its title suggests, the film
is set at a cruising spot by a lake, where Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps)
meets Michel (Christophe Paou). Despite being certain Michel is a
murderer (he witnesses the man drown one of his lovers), Franck pursues their intense sexual relationship anyway,
leading him -- and us as the viewer -- down a psychologically complex and dangerously sexy path.
Guiraudie said that he had always been interested queer male sexuality on screen, but before "Stranger" it had always been an issue he'd skirted around.
"I never really went to it directly," he said. "The ways that I did think about dealing with it were more detached, a little bit cheated, and a little bit lighter. I never really went into what it was to show this kind of desire, this kind of passion where it really becomes all consuming for you and you can't live without the other person. I hadn't showed that before in my films. That was really the heart of the project. I wanted to show that."
The writer-director said he's no stranger to the setting of the film, which marked a starting point in the script's development.
"This kind of a lake setting is very familiar to me," he said. "Also the characters are characters that are very familiar to me. There is a lot of myself in these characters. I think also in a character like Michel -- who is really not like me -- I knew people like him. So it all represented a familiarity for me, which was easy for me to write about them."
The very first scene that they shot was the drowning, which is really what sets off a narrative that distinguishes the film from what Guiraudie said could have basically been a "quasi-documentary."
"For me in many ways the drowning represents this dichotomy in the film," he said. "It's this opposition between what is basically ordinary daily life for these guys to go to the beach -- it's almost quasi-documentary in the way it shows that -- but then on the other hand you see this drowning take place and its something very violent and very terrifying. It's the contrast between the two and opposing the two that was really of interest to me."
Up-and-coming French actor Pierre Deladonchamps plays the non-murderous half of the film's lead couple. He spoke very warmly of the experience, particular of working with both Guriaudie and his co-star Christophe Paou.
"We were a bit shy, of course, but we made friends and we still are," he said of Paou. "I think we could help each other for the difficult times in the shoot. Sometimes it was the same for both of us. Sometimes it was just him or just me. You see on the set there are different scenes that are difficult to do. He's really a nice person and we had a good relationship. We talked a lot together to talk about what we were going to do, what we just had done on a scene because we wanted to be sure the other was okay."
The two shared multiple simulated sex scenes (the film does have explicit sex but it was filmed with body doubles), which Deladonchamps said were easier than he expected.
"For everybody on the set it was like 'lets go,'" he said of those scenes. "At the end there was a big silence. And sometimes we'd have to do it again. But there was such a great atmosphere on this set... And I personally said to myself before, 'Don't ask yourself too many questions.' I felt that I would be blocked if I asked myself too many questions. What am I going to do? How is my body? Because I'm naked, and I'm doing this, this, this, this... I just didn't want to think too much. I trusted the director. I ask him is it okay with what we just done, do you think we should do that differently? We talked a lot and it was all very natural."
Guriaudie said they were very upfront in contacting acting agents about the fact that this was a film where they would be sex scenes and where you would be expected to be naked, well, nearly the entire time.
"There were not only scenes with sex but also scenes that involved love and seduction and that this would all be represented in the film," the director said. "It's also a film where probably you would have to be 75 to maybe even 90 percent of the time be naked. There were a lot of actors who simply refused to come to the casting call because they knew this in advance and were not interested in doing it. So really the actors who did come already had that behind them. They already knew that would be a factor and so the problem of nudity really wasn't a problem because they all knew that was going to happen."
He said the sex scenes were a little different because it was something that caused fear for both himself as the director in actually filming them and also the for the actors acting in it.
"I think the way we were able to handle them was to discuss them a lot and we did a enormous amount of preparation," he said. "We did a lot of rehearsals. We worked out all of the positions very carefully so that by the time it came to shoot the scenes all of actors and myself as well, we were very, very prepared about what was going to happen. So when we actually shot the scene on the set everything was pleasant and it went smoothly and all of that had been put behind us, and I think it was because of this thorough preparation."
Clearly the process paid off. Reviews in Cannes (where Guriaudie won best director in the Un Certain Regard program), and then again in Toronto and New York have across-the-board acclaim, which caught the filmmaker offguard.
"I was surprised by the unanimity," Guriaudie said. "I was really expecting that there would be some people who would really very much be in favor of the film but I also expected there would be another group of people who would totally reject it."
It actually came with a bit more unanimity that "Blue Is The Warmest Color," which despite winning the Palme d'Or actually lost Cannes "Queer Palm" (for the best LGBT film) to "Stranger." While "Blue" was certainly beloved by most, it did receive some criticism (notably from the author of the graphic novel it's based on). When asked what he thought of "Blue" -- which, unlike "Stranger" is directed by a heterosexual -- Guriaudie admitted a few qualms.
"I had some question about the sincerity of the film," he said. "Ot the truthfulness of it. Because when I was watching it and when I was seeing the sex scenes I had to ask myself, 'What did it mean for a heterosexual man to film these love scenes between two women? How truthful is it? How representative of reality is it?"
That will be an interesting question to judge for yourself as "Stranger" starts its theatrical run in New York this weekend.