The scheduling of the Cannes Film Festival works in such a way that it’s rare that we get to see any film based on anything as spontaneous as peer recommendation unless it’s already been on our radar for a few weeks beforehand. But one film that did come to our notice by that route, and then had the stars align enough for us to be able to go and see, was Alain Guiraudie’s French-language “Stranger By The Lake,” and we’re very glad it did. Tonally in the same vein of sunny noir as, say, Francois Ozon’s “Swimming Pool,” ‘Stranger’ is a sexually explicit but low-key story of lust and murder set, with almost theatrically formal rigor, in a contained few locations on the “gay side” of a lake in the French countryside over a few weeks of summer. It has since gone on to win Best Director in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, as well as picking up the independently awarded “Queer Palm” for best film with an LGBT focus, and it deserves all its plaudits, because while its graphic scenes of gay sex are what will grab headlines, what was most impressive to us was the film’s unique mood: Guiraudie creates an ambiance of eerie atmospherics that is at once crisp and observant, and oddly dreamlike, or nightmarish.
The film takes place entirely in four contiguous spaces around the lakeside beach: the car park (to which Guiraudie returns perhaps too often to mark the passage of days by the changing positions of the cars), the small beach where sunbathing men greet and eye each other up, the lake itself with its crystal waters, and what’s rather romantically called “the woods” -- the scrubby shaded area where copulating couples can gain a degree of condom-strewn privacy amid trees and bushes. On the other side, we’re told, there’s the “family” beach, and occasionally characters refer to “going to dinner” or “going for a drink” but for all intents and purposes, this small domain is the entire world of the film, with its own unspoken rules and codes. And the authenticity with which it is rendered proves one of the film’s best selling points -- we get a sense of glimpsing an arcane world in miniature, one that seldom admits outsiders, but the dispassion of Guiraudie’s camera is coolly non-judgmental, even when events are at their most melodramatic.
It’s into this world that the good-looking, lithe Franck (Pierre de Ladonchamps) arrives, for the first time since last year when it’s implied he was a regular to the area. Going in for swim, he notices Henri (Patrick d'Assumçao) a rather unprepossessing, overweight man who sits removed from the other men and doesn’t mingle, or indeed cruise. Franck strikes up an acquaintance with Henri, that progresses into a friendship, but one that, unusually for these parts it seems, remains resolutely platonic. Franck, in any case has his eye on the sun-kissed Adonis, Michel (the very Tom Selleck-ian Christophe Paou), who is, however already spoken for. Then one evening Franck stays late, witnesses Michel drown his lover deliberately in the middle of the lake, and watches him return alone to shore apparently oblivious to having been seen. But rather than the knowledge of Michel’s murderous side cooling his ardor, it seem Franck finds his dangerousness lends an additional frisson to his erotic fixation, and the two embark on a passionate affair, during which Franck progresses from silent witness to almost complicit accomplice, after the body is found and the police start to investigate.
There are some interesting points being made here about the cruising lifestyle -- it’s hard not to draw a parallel between the danger of sleeping with a killer and the random, potentially lethal game of chance embarked on when when the men engage in at times explicitly unprotected sex. And the film’s take on the intimacy of shared secrets, the turn ons of danger and mystery and the simple misfortune of liking one person but lusting after another, are the more universal for never being explicitly spelled out. But of course the most headline-grabbing aspect of the film is the onscreen, unsimulated gay sex (though body doubles were apparently occasionally used, it doesn’t change the fact that there are a lot of erect penises, at least one on-screen ejaculation, and a great deal of sucking and writhing going on). But all of the sex scenes do serve the story, especially as they detail the progression of Franck and Michel’s relationship from the first, heady, it-must-be-love encounter through to the lessening of the grip of Michel’s aura of danger and mystery on Franck’s erotic imagination, and beyond. With the narrative itself kept simple and compelling, the sex scenes can be taken as pit-stops for titillation by those who wish it, but since they are not in any way dwelt upon or exploitatively shoehorned into the story, there’s no mistaking the film for crude porn.
In fact, the film’s mood is what stayed with us long after the explicit imagery had faded from memory. The odd sense of claustrophobia, evoked paradoxically through beautiful widescreen photography, is brilliantly achieved despite the wide blue skies and serene expanse of glittering water. The sound design too is exceptional, from the strange way noises and voices carry across the surface of the lake to the rustling of the bushes that signals a stranger’s approach, to the tense eerie silence of the woods as night falls. Right up until the ending, which in its ambivalence rather let us down after what had been such a confident and cleanly drawn story to that point, the film is something of a masterclass in tonal control, its deceptive minimalism adding greatly to richness of the experience. “Stranger By The Lake” is a small, highly polished film detailing how easily morality can become unmoored, “Lord of the Flies”-style, in an enclosed society that refers only to itself. Its unhurried pace and yes, its graphic gay sex may put off a wider audience, but those who seek it out (it’s been picked up by Strand Releasing in the U.S.) have a uniquely moody experience to look forward to: a glimpse at the dark undertows of sex and death that roil beneath the torpor of a few idle summer days. [B+]