When it comes to intense, erotic explorations of human desire on screen – whether painful or joyful, homosexual, heterosexual or the many permutations in between – few filmmakers are doing it like French filmmakers are doing it, these days. Granted, an association of le cinéma français with explicit depictions of sexuality has been standard – even cliché – for many years now: at least since Alain Cuny’s head dipped beneath Jeanne Moreau’s waist in the 1959 Les Amants. But it’s certainly the case that directors as diverse as Catherine Breillat, François Ozon, Claire Denis, Christophe Honoré and, most recently and controversially, Abdellatif Kechiche with Blue is the Warmest Colour have continued to place desire and corporeality at the centre of their work, and have done so with a challenging candour and bracing sensibility that makes most contemporary American cinema look fairly pallid and juvenile by comparison.
Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger By The Lake (L’Inconnnu du lac) is the latest addition to the fold. A festival favourite that deservedly won the Queer Palm and Best Director prizes at last year’s
, the status of this elegant, provocative, genre-crossing film as a contemporary queer classic already seems assured. In its tactility, its attention to place and space and its unabashed focus on the male body, Stranger By The Lake evokes Denis’s work, and, more specifically, Ozon’s seductive and terrifying See the Sea (1997) which contains a central beach-and-woodland sequence that looks like a significant inspiration for Guiraudie’s movie. For Stranger By the Lake unfolds entirely at a picturesque gay cruising area on the French coast where men flop naked on the sand, check each other out and head to the woods for sex. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) has pitched up at the spot for the summer and passes his time talking with the solitary bisexual Henri (Patrick d'Assumçao), lusting after the moustachioed Michel (Christophe Paou) and being lusted after, in turn, by the voyeur Eric (Mathieu Vervisch) whose attentions he continually rebuffs. Cannes
The film might have the feel of a particularly classy porn flick were it not for the diverse bodies it presents, and for the director’s careful attention to the nuances of all aspects of the men’s conduct and contact. Stranger By The Lake succeeds in making of the beach setting a microcosmic universe with rules and codes all its own (a recognisable, archetypal, near-timeless queer space), and though a killing occurs - and gets witnessed by Franck – the movie is far from the murky Cruising rip-off that this premise might suggest. A considerable amount of suspense builds up, and the film is genuinely transgressive in its presentation of lust increased rather than diminished by the witnessing of a murder. But the tone throughout is mostly tranquil, watchful and calm, based around Guiraudie’s patient observation of the men’s various interactions. These yield often surprising admissions (as well as not-so-surprising emissions) and some pearls of behavioural comedy, not least thanks to Eric’s appearances: forever fondling himself as he observes the assignations of others and pulling up his shorts to beat a retreat when he’s admonished for peeking. The film features as much chatting as shagging, then, though what there is of the latter is eye-poppingly explicit, going further in its depiction of gay male sex than any of the directors cited above have dared so far. At times, indeed, the movie’s sunny summer setting and talky tendencies call to mind Eric Rohmer let off the leash: “Anal at the Beach,” perhaps?
Aside from its confident merging of moods and genre tropes, and its uniformly excellent performances, what really distinguishes Stranger By The Lake, though, is its attention to atmosphere and the primal, elemental quality that Guiraudie brings to the material: a quality that gives the film the resonance of myth. Throughout, the movie makes the viewer aware of natural sounds: birdsong, the lap of the water, the wind in the trees, the men’s groans of pleasure or pain, the rhythms of their conversation. The quietness, punctuated by such sounds, gets to the viewer, casting an initially seductive and ultimately an eerie spell, as Guiraudie leaves one character alone, calling his lover’s name into the dead of night. It’s a haunting, unsettlingly ambiguous conclusion to an intelligent, beautifully controlled and thoroughly absorbing film.