Stranger by the Lake

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Alain Guiraudie

Starring

Christophe Paou Patrick d’Assumçao Pierre Deladonchamps

Anticipation.

One of the big discoveries at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.

Enjoyment.

An innovative new twist on what is essentially a classic tale of amour fou.

In Retrospect.

Alain Guiraudie – remember that name.

A scintillating and quietly radical gay-cruising murder mystery set in a single, sunny location.

There are certain secret areas of the human anatomy – male and female – that seldom, if ever, make an appearance in mainstream cinema. Let’s call it the worm’s eye view, looking directly upwards from the ground from a vantage point that’s equidistant between the two feet. The reason that the camera is rarely placed at this somewhat awkward, voyeuristic angle is because it’s too far removed from relatable human experience – we don’t view the world upwards, looking at the either the ceiling, the empty sky or dangling genitalia. Thankfully, French director Alain Guiraudie has carefully altered the dimensions of this anti-shot so we can experience its fleshy pleasures from a perspective that remains naturalistic.

And so Stranger by the Lake boasts the odd distinction of allowing viewers to bask in full-frontal nudity from new and unchartered angles. While this all might translate as mere feisty, censor-baiting provocation, it should be said that Guiraudie executes these shots with a cavalier nonchalance last redolent of Jack Smith’s seminal 1963 short, Flaming Creatures. His actors aren’t distinguished by their faces, but the primal, upside-down features that are formed by a flaccid penis laying on top of a pair of testicles.

The film opens with our hero, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), cantering from a quiet carpark, through a woodland glade and onto a lakeside nudist beach – thereby introducing the film’s three sole locations. He then proceeds to take his clothes off and lay down, peeking lengthways up the waterline for men he could accompany into the bushes. One morning he spies Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao) sat all alone off to the West and fully clothed. The pair begin to talk and strike up an easy, non-sexual rapport. His reasons for being present on the beach remain obscure, though it enables him to observe the romantic actions of his denuded co-bathers.

This is a strange and brilliant film, one that manages to transcend the ironically extreme presentation of its central drama to exist as a stripped-back, Hitchcockian fable about the untenable vicissitudes of human desire. “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!” said Fritz Lang in Metropolis, but Guiraudie has formulated a set-up where no single character possesses all three of these essential human traits. Ineffectual Henri has heart and head. Doleful Franck has heart and hands. And then there’s the predatory Michel (Christophe Paou), the moustachioed antagonist who has head and hands – which he uses for sex, but also for murder.

Stranger by the Lake, a deadpan erotic fable, defies easy genre categorisation at every turn, combining the best of everything (comedy, horror, erotic thriller) rather than attempting to plough its own eccentric furrow. Guiraudie shoots in gorgeous wide frames, presenting this beach as a sunny idyll that’s been tainted by the spectre of death and the grubby thrill of sex in the bushes. It talks directly about the sexual appetites of the gay community, but its overarching themes touch on icky universal truths.

Published 20 Feb 2014

Tags: French Cinema LGBT Queer Cinema

Anticipation.

One of the big discoveries at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.

Enjoyment.

An innovative new twist on what is essentially a classic tale of amour fou.

In Retrospect.

Alain Guiraudie – remember that name.

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