A thoughtful, elegant French thriller that just happens to be giving society's sermonisers a conniption, Stranger By The Lake transplants Hitchcockian tensions to a seemingly genteel cruising spot in high summer. The sun beats down, the water ripples and the wind breathes lazily through the trees, but darker deeds are afoot amongst the easy-living (and loving) gay men who frequent the spot. It's a film on everyone's lips and Empire went along to persuade its maker, Alain Guiraudie, and his two stars to share everything you need to know about it.
Alain Guiraudie’s erotic, dreamlike thriller, set at a popular gay cruising spot, is, make no mistake, full of sex. Vigorous, intense, very visible encounters which could unnerve some, and possibly played a part in one UK chain’s 11th-hour decision to cancel screenings this weekend (the official reason was a scheduling snafu) — although after a modest but determined Twitter campaign the film, which nabbed Guiraudie the Un Certain Regard award for directing at Cannes, has happily now been reinstated.
Lead actors Pierre Deladonchamps (Franck) and Christophe Paou (Michel) are open about how wary they were about the more explicit sequences, and were clear from the start that they didn’t want to perform them themselves. Rather than go with the “fake vaginas” route employed in Blue Is The Warmest Colour, Guiraudie decided to go with body doubles after experiments with prosthetics proved, well, deeply unsexy. “At first we talked about a fake phallus,” remembers Paou. “And we tried for one scene. We had false ejaculation with a false phallus between us, but it didn’t work! It was like a metal screw with a dildo between us.” “It wouldn’t move like a real one,” rues Deladonchamps. “It was like a [gear] stick in a car more than a dick.” So instead, “We had a choreography in mind,” explains Deladonchamps. “Alain would tell us, ‘First time you kiss, then you’ll pretend to blow-job him, then you’ll pretend to fuck him.’” “Then Alain would say, ‘Okay, body double, please!’” smiles Paou.
Despite the more explicit moments, Deladonchamps, Paou and Guiraudie have been pleasantly surprised at how little rumpus there has been so far. “I expected more rejection from the critics,” admits Guiraudie. “But there wasn’t a huge controversy in France. Even in Brazil, the United States, Italy – the country of the Vatican! Only one, gay, critic felt that it gave a negative image of sexuality.” Deladonchamps acknowledges that the material could be challenging for some parts of the audience — “If you are a straight guy and you go to see a movie with gay sex, it can be disturbing because you are afraid that people will think that you are attracted to these kinds of stories.” Still, as Paou points out, “It was a success in France, even with straight people. The aunt of a friend of mine, she went with two friends, and they are 75 years old and they really enjoyed it. There is something very universal in this movie.”
For all this talk of sex, it’s not really about that. Stranger By The Lake is a meditation on the madness of love, and what it will prompt you to do. How far would Stranger’s trio go for l’amour? “We don’t know!” says Paou. “Love is like Santa Claus: you don’t know what you’re going to get.” (We always thought that was the problem with boxes of chocolates.) “You are in front of the unknown, and you might kill for love. It depends!” he ponders. Delandonchamps is thoughtful about Franck’s attraction to the very dangerous Michel; it goes far beyond that fantastic Tom Selleck moustache: “Franck wants to spice up his life. He wants to be in this very special relationship, because no-one else could say, ‘I know that he could kill me, but I love him. And I’m having a good time with him.’ Franck wants to show Michel that he is not afraid to die. I wouldn’t be ready to do that myself! But my character, he is.”
A third figure in their relationship is the older, isolated, “depressive” Henri (Patrick d’Assumçoa), an ambiguous character who will make a startlingly grand gesture “to save his platonic love”, Franck. “I chose to go for an Henri who’s a bit more working-class,” says Guiraudie. “Like a man of the people. Quite simply I think it was a way of making him more alone. He is completely apart. Because this is also a film about solitude. And loneliness.” And what would Guiraudie be prepared to do in the name of desire, finding a connection? “What do I know? Being reasonable, I wouldn’t run into [someone like Michel’s] arms. But you need art to go beyond reality, and life. I don’t think you should be reasonable in love – and you certainly shouldn’t be reasonable in film.”
It’s definitely been a great 12 months for lakes, what with brilliant French TV series The Returned and the acclaimed Top Of The Lake. As with those, the ‘lac’ here — another seemingly hermetically sealed environment — is almost a character in itself, and in fact was Guiraudie’s starting point. “I wrote very very quickly, and I had in my head this cruising spot by a lake that I know. But there are several I know!” he laughs. In fact, Guiraudie’s lake – near Toulouse, in south-west France – was rejected because the director was determined to film in very sunny conditions, and ultimately he found his ideal location in Provence, 100 miles north of Cannes.
“Provence is the highest region in terms of sunshine, but it’s not an area with loads of lakes, so I didn’t have that much choice,” he remembers. “In fact, I knew this lake, but I said, ‘I specifically don’t want that lake, it’s too big.’ But there was sort of a little bay, so we used that. We were very very delighted because of this arc – there is this idea of Greek tragedy in the film, and the arc is like a theatre.” Other prerequisites were a beach and, of course, the woods alongside, which form the backdrop for all the intrigue, and the intrigues. Given the amount of lounging around in the buff, we’d imagine the cast might have preferred it if a lake with a somewhat less rocky shore had been found, but both Paou and Deladonchamps speak fondly of the shoot. “It was September, October, so no tourists, no-one. So we would stay together all the time, in this very small town, [with] the same 200 persons,” smiles Deladonchamps. “Drinking soup!” chips in Paou. “And at the weekends we would go to the bigger cities around, like Nice,” continues Deladonchamps. “It was like a family shooting, and everyone was confident and comfortable with each other.”
The need for hours of sunshine came from a commitment to shoot in only natural light, and the progression and rhythm of the day is part of the film’s distinctive look and feel. “The main idea was to work with nature,” says Guiraudie. “Even in my original script, I had a lot of very clear directions to do with the light: the beginning of the afternoon, the middle of the afternoon, early dusk, end of dusk, and also the idea to get as close as possible to night. If you use the light in the different moments of the day, you realise how rich light is, and the huge variety there is in a day.”
Sound, too, is striking, in particular the near-constant roar of wind in the trees; in contrast, there is relatively little dialogue. “The idea behind it was sensuality,” explains Guiraudie. “And this region has a lot of wind, so that was ideal.” As with the light, the director decided to keep things as natural and raw as possible. “In the post-production set-up, usually you clean up the sound that’s been recorded in situ; you take away things that are interfering and you add sounds from elsewhere. But I was very keen to do the minimum clean-up, and we didn’t add any exterior sounds: all the sounds you hear were recorded live, there. And what’s astonishing for me is that by paring everything down, and keeping everything basic and pure, it’s the richest film I’ve made from the point of view of sound.”
“In a future film I will go further in my representation of sex,” concludes Guiraudie. “I will show female sex!” He laughs, but is quite serious. “Because that’s yet another thing, in terms of controversy, for a homosexual to show female sex. Straight sex. Sexual organs, of men, older men, younger men, older women, younger women, giving birth, with a vagina. The problem is, doing it in a non-provocative way, not pornographically.” So how does one go about that, Empire wonders, thinking again of the lovers by the lake. “It’s a question of gaze and distance,” Guiraudie says. “The great difference is whether you stay with the mechanics of the sexual act. Or whether you reconnect: with love, with caresses, with feelings.”