REVIEW: L’inconnu du lac [Stranger by the Lake] [2013]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 100 minutes | Release Date: June 12th, 2013 (France)
Studio: Les Films du Losange / Strand Releasing
Director(s): Alain Guiraudie
Writer(s): Alain Guiraudie

“I won’t get tired so fast”

Lust is a powerful drug that makes us do stupid things. We mistake it for love, brainwashing ourselves into thinking truths about the object of our affection don’t matter because what you have together is special. Did he treat his ex badly? Is he a jerk unwilling to see his obvious faults yet too much of a fairy tale embodiment of absolute beauty for you to care? How far would you go to be with you’re infatuation once he smiles at you? How much would you ignore? It can be surprising what your mind forgives when the reward is unparalleled pleasure because at a certain point sexual satiation becomes synonymous with breath. It clouds your judgment and accepts your pain as long as you receive the attention allowing you to forget your troubles and the consequences such complicity condones.

This is the microcosm writer/director Alain Guiraudie has created with L’inconnu du lac [Stranger by the Lake], a romantic crime thriller that takes place completely alongside a French lake known as a cruising hotspot for gay men frequenting it’s sandy beaches during the summer. He has recreated a similar locale he once knew, populating it with naked men perpetually looking back at each newcomer to see who’s worth taking aside for a rendezvous in the woods. Some strip down to swim in the water, some simply tan in the sun until a window shopper stops by to say hello, and others lurk inside the heavy foliage searching for a passionate embrace with which to voyeuristically watch—aroused yet not desiring inclusion. It’s an escape with no-strings-attached; a community meeting spot devoid of inhibitions and prejudice.

Winner of Best Director at the 2013 Festival de Cannes, Guiraudie takes great care to let everything play out on its own terms within this seeming oasis of carnal appetite. He opens each of the ten days depicted with an overhead shot of the makeshift parking lot so that the number of cars can help us infer upon what may happen after Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) makes his way to the beach; systematically progressing through his lead’s daily routine of kissing an acquaintance on the check, engaging in brief conversation with new friend Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), and eventually making his way into the woods for a kiss, blow job, or explicit sexual encounter. Night falls, Franck heads to his car, and he drives off so that the next sunny morning can catch him upon his return.

The film possesses a Hitchcockian flavor from the start with Franck’s Rear Window-esque voyeurism, always searching the many characters caught in differing states of willing interaction depending on who they’ve brought or who they’ve paired with. He notices Henri sitting alone his first day, swimming over to introduce himself and see whether the newcomer was shy, ignorant to the beach’s clientele, or simply hoping to enjoy peace and quiet. He catches the brawny physique of another stranger named Michel (Christophe Paou) exiting the water and heading into the trees, mesmerized by his beauty and the desire to follow before someone else notices. And he finds himself in the dark one night listening to a struggle in the water before watching a figure push another below the surface until only one comes quietly ashore in a magnificent four-minute long take.

Unlike Jimmy Stewart, however, Franck doesn’t panic and call the police. No, he discerns the murderer was Michel and the victim Pascal Ramière (François-Renaud Labarthe)—the man assumed to be his boyfriend after seeing the two together on more than one occasion—and finds himself helpless against seeing it as an opportunity to be with this Adonis he thought was taken. And when Michel comes back two days later to casually share a towel, the ensuing passionate sex shared causes everything else to disappear into thin air. Love makes Franck lie to the inspector (Jérôme Chappatte) roaming the sand after the body is found, go into the water with Michel despite logical reservations brought on by the fact they were the only ones left at the lake, and ignore the prospect he may strike again.

Guiraudie tightens the suspense as each day turns into the next with carefully staged details like an abandoned car’s presence and its subsequent absence adding to our dread and Franck’s unnerving comfort. Each tonal change is manufactured by visual cues made more overt by the lack of music (score and songs alike) so slow pans through faces, bare chests, and hanging penises can instill a sense of familiarity and intentional detachment of people minding their own business while shots from afar help set-up the in-close encounters laced with extra baggage only we are fully aware of thanks to knowing everything occurring when characters believed they’re alone. The danger escalates tenfold, Franck grows more attached and therefore angry at Michel’s lack of reciprocation, and Henri’s act of platonic love ignites a violent climax wrought from passion’s choice for silence.

Love through uncensored sex (the actors are naked for ninety percent of the film while body doubles engage in hardcore acts) juxtaposes with the malicious intent of strangers who honestly know nothing about one another besides sexual orientation as Stranger by the Lake touches upon the myriad types of men finding themselves inside a cruising zone of lovers, abusers, creepers, and friends. Each performance fearlessly goes full-throttle as the characters’ yearning for satisfaction outweighs the obvious complexity at hand while selfish desire forgets the concept of self-preservation. The lake becomes an Eden ruled by an organ other than the brain where discretion trumps danger so it may be business as usual 48-hours after an unsolved death washes ashore. Seeking a physical connection away from conservative society’s prying eyes, their oasis soon turns into a devil’s playground.

[1] Christophe Paou & Pierre Deladonchamps
[2] Pierre Deladonchamps & Patrick d’Assumçao
[3] Christophe Paou & Pierre Deladonchamps
credit: Strand Releasing

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