Alain Guiraudie‘s intriguing blend of bold homosexual erotica and compelling psychological thriller, Stranger By The Lake (L’inconnu Du Lac) has something eery and original about it. It was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at this year’s Cannes Film Festival where it went on to win the award for Best Director, and the Queer Palm award. The setting is a picturesque, serene lake in France during a balmy summer, a ‘cruising’ spot for gay men to pursue their lovers. The lake backs onto woods, where the men go to be alone. It’s a place that’s is simultaneously exposed and secretive. From it they can see the lake, and the clearings amongst the trees means couples are regularly exposed to whoever wanders by. This aspect is a source of surprising humour, as one cruiser called Eric keeps propping up, touching himself and watching to watch. He’s pathetically but admirably optimistic, always trying, despite his unappealing appearance compared to his competition; “I just want to watch’ he persists when they tell him to go away. “But we’re just talking!” one couple shout out, “I won’t listen” is his response.
Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is an attractive man desired by many of the men in the area. He’s aimless, without real prospects or clue about his place in life. The film opens with him striking up an unlikely platonic friendship with middle-aged and disillusioned Henri (Patrick d’Assumco), a loner who chooses to spend his three weeks holiday simply sitting and staring out into nature. He doesn’t sunbath or swim naked with a constant look out for another pair of eyes to meet, like the others. For him the lake is just a place where he can just “think all day”. The point of his presence becomes clear.
The setting is key here, we never move away from the lake or the nakedness of its inhabitants. It’s incredibly, sometimes uncomfortably, voyeuristic. In fact, it will be a challenge to find a more sexually explicit erotic thriller than this and a more frank portrayal of homosexuality. After several mindless encounters, Frank swims past handsome Michel (Christophe Paou) and is taken aback. To his dismay he appears to be already taken, as after a brief chat with him he wanders off into the trees with another young man. Later, Frank is watching them swim, hiding in the darkness, when he witnesses an act of violence. He is startled, but driven by desire, decides to ignore it. He proceeds to be entangled in a dangerous web of deceit, where although innocent, becomes guilty through his silence. What starts as an engaging art-house drama descends into a more conventional thriller during the latter half, but this is no bad thing. It’s classically done, reminiscent of Hitchcock. An atmospheric cautionary tale of the perils of reckless love and longing.
This review comes from a screening at the 57th BFI London Film Festival 2013 (LFF 2013).