STRANGER BY THE LAKE directed by Alain Guiraudie (France, 2013)
This absorbing and uncompromising movie is the kind of a psychological thriller Alfred Hitchcock might have made if he’d been gay.
It draws you into a suspenseful world and leaves you guessing about the motivations of the characters and questioning the morality of their actions in the same way as we do with the James Stewart roles in Vertigo and Rear Window.
In saying that, there’s not much in the way of action beyond the carnal variety.
This is a no spoilers review so I will focus on some of the broad themes rather than the twists and turns of the plot.
Initially you think that the stranger of the title is Henri, a man who sits alone on a rocky part of the beach and, unlike all the other men by the lake, shows no interest in cruising for sex.
Yet in many ways all the three central characters are strangers to us and to each other. We always see them in the same setting and know little about their lives beyond the fact that, aside from Henri (Patrick D’Assumçao), they like sunbathing, swimming and recreational sex.
We always return to the same places —the parking lot, the woods, the beach, the lake – and the repetition of these scenes together with the use of long shots, and naturalistic lighting gives a hypnotic and mythical dimension to the mating rituals. The absence of musical soundtrack increases, rather than diminishes the drama.
As the story unfolds, what the director seems to be highlighting is that desire can drive us to act irrationally and take risks we would normally be at pains to avoid.
In an interview with Slant, Guiraudie says that the central question of the film: “Just how far am I willing to go to live and experience what I want, and be satisfied? ”
Michel (Christophe Paou)and Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) satisfy each other sexually, of that we are left in no doubt. The un-simulated sex scenes (performed by body doubles) are tastefully filmed but leave little to the imagination. But beyond the physical attraction they are strangers to each other, a fact that increases the tension and, paradoxically, heightens the desire. Fear acts as an aphrodisiac.
These themes are explicitly applied to a world of male homosexuality but are equally relevant to ‘straight’ relationships. Among the other questions the director wanted audiences to consider dilemmas are “Is it worth taking risks in order to satisfy your desire? Or is it better to stifle your desire in order to avoid danger? ”
A strength of the film is that it doesn’t seek to provide glib answers to these question and the ambiguities are maintained to the very end.