Franck (Deladonchamps) frequents a gay cruising spot by a lake, one day meeting handsome Michel (Paou). The attraction is instant, but Michel is dangerous. Will their liaison prove fatal?
"Contains strong real sex”, states the BBFC blandly with its 18 rating for Stranger By The Lake. Rivalling — maybe even out-blueing — Blue Is The Warmest Colour for robust couplings, writer-director Alain Guiraudie’s award-winning film — like its French sister — is full of it, but uses sex as an integral part of the story he has to tell.
Unlike Warmest Colour’s tale of teenage sexual awakening, however, the narrative here is far from simple. On the face of it a (sort of) standard love plot — boy meets boy who already has a boy so in the meantime has sex with another boy and makes friends with a further boy (the setting’s a gay cruising spot) — Guiraudie’s screenplay is so layered and deceptively complex that what we’re offered in just 100 minutes amounts to several films rolled into one. For our protagonist Franck’s (Pierre Deladonchamps) objet désir, Michel (Christophe Paou), is, for all his model good looks and magnetic charisma, a very dark individual, prone to dismissing in the coldest manner anyone who becomes surplus to his requirements. So, as well as romance — and borderline porno — what we’re presented with is also both mystery and thriller, as Michel’s actions (viewed from a distance, often obscured, for Franck especially, by trees and bushes) become more ominous and Franck’s fears grow.
Guiraudie broadens this further into police procedural, as hapless detective Inspecteur Damroder (Jérome Chappatte) arrives at the lake to investigate the disappearance of Michel’s boyfriend. And yet, as tacit context to all of this is perhaps the most important element of all, a candid exploration of human desire and longing, and of loneliness, and what such contrasting but related impulses will lead us to do — and also to accept or even ignore. Areas become ever more grey, and questions become questions.
Adding to the film’s hypnotic, woozy feel (a little reminiscent of The Returned, with its isolated, lake-based Gallic community full of secrets) is Claire Mathon’s stunning cinematography, from bright sunlight to eerie evening and the dark of night, juxtaposed with the magnified roar of the wind through the trees on the shore. With dialogue kept to a minimum, it is this threatening yet desolate sound that lingers most.
Beautifully crafted, sinister, frightening, erotic and thought-provoking, Alain Guiraudies multi-faceted Cannes triumph is already one of the most provocative, intriguing films of the year.