Stranger by the Lake (L’inconnu du lac) (Alain Guiraudie – France) 97 minutes
Alain Guiraudie’s fourth film was a critical hit at Cannes this year and will probably mark his international breakthrough. Stranger by the Lake is a simple but devilishly smart drama in which the identity of the titular stranger shifts as the film progresses. Initially, it might be Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), an interloper on the libertine gay lakeside shingle. Recently separated from a girlfriend, he sits alone on the beach, explaining to Franck (Pierre de Ladonchamps), the only one of the beach regulars to befriend him, that he chooses the gay shore rather than the straight one opposite because people would think him weird if he spoke to people over there. Henri sticks out like a sore thumb, overweight and middle-aged amid the young perfectly-sculpted bodies, but he is also a bristling counterpoint to the lake’s prevailing homosexual discourse, and acts like a sage chorus to the film’s drama, which takes a sinister turn when one of the regulars is murdered.
The murderer is Michel, a rakish mustachioed hunk with the build of a pro swimmer. He kills off his lover, capriciously and almost playfully, by holding his head under the water at dusk after everyone has left for the evening. Everyone, that is, except for Franck, who has stayed behind to observe Michel, with whom he is infatuated. You might expect Franck to report the murder to the police and steer well clear of a dangerous killer but instead he allows him to be seduced by him and even covers up for him when the police come around asking questions. All the while, he becomes increasingly upset with Michel, who refuses to spend the night with him and does not want a sentimental attachment to develop between them.
Franck’s behaviour, insane as it appears, is an obvious metaphor for the knowing risks gay men run by barebacking, of which there is a lot in the film. When the pair first have sex, Franck asks Michel if he minds doing it without a condom, to which the latter responds, with a Mephistophelean smile, ‘oh, noooooo’. Another floating (or rather swimming) signifier comes in the form of the sirulid, a vicious catfish, supposedly up to fifteen-feet long that preys on unsuspecting swimmers. Henri warns Franck of the dangers of it but Franck laughs off his concerns as fanciful.
A further interloper is the detective investigating the murder (Jérôme Chappatte), who circles in on Franck, who he knows has more to tell about what he saw than he lets on. He too is a chorus of sorts, passing judgement on the community’s mores, remarking that they sleep with people whose names they don’t even know, and notice nothing when the dead man’s car and beach towel remain for days unattended. Michel similarly begins to suspect that Franck was a witness (he noticed his car still parked in the car park when he left on that evening) and you wonder how our hero is going to extricate himself from that situation. And Henri, who still lurks silently on his solitary perch, also confronts Michel about what he knows.
Stranger by the Lake is a sparse drama, with every single scene taking place either on the lakeside shingle or in the woods up above, where couples pair off to fuck. It is also a finely calibrated study of the morality or amorality of a libertine lifestyle. The explicit gay sex scenes will probably put off most casual viewers but Guiraudie has produced one of the most original and ingenious films of the year, which deserves to be seen by more than a niche audience.
L'INCONNU DU LAC / STRANGER BY THE LAKE (Trailer ST EN) from Les Films Du Losange on Vimeo.