A cerebral character study that looks into the incredibly screwed up and often contradictory nature of sexual desire, Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake has a lot to say about how people can throw their own sense of personal preservation to the wind for a chance at love. Although it takes place entirely at a secluded beach that caters almost exclusively to gay men looking to cruise, the actual undercurrent of Guiraudie’s story could easily graft itself onto almost any story of a psychologically abusive relationship. The best, and perhaps most tragic part of it all, is that his core relationship is so subtly abusive that the protagonist is willfully neglectful of it until it’s too late.
Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is a decent looking, affable, 30ish gay male who spends his summer days at a rocky beach outcropping looking for hook ups. Deep down, he’s really looking for something more. One day, a classically good looking guy named Michel (Christophe Paou, boasting a lip duster that would make Burt Reynolds or Tom Selleck jealous) catches his eye, but he’s seemingly taken by an overly possessive younger man. One night while off in the woods surrounding the beach, Franck watches from the bushes as Michel swims with his lover to the middle of the lake, only to hold the young man’s head under water until he dies. Choosing to forget about what he saw, the very next day he begins a sexual relationship with Michel that he hopes to turn into something a lot more special and hopefully less deadly.
In between depictions of graphic, unflinching sexuality and a perversely dark sense of humor (including a pretty funny running gag about a pervert who simply likes to stand around masturbating while guys are doing it in front of him), Guiraudie develops his characters without ever once needing to show us their lives outside of the beach. Anything that happens at the beach is explicitly made known to be more exciting than their home lives; they wouldn’t be at the beach otherwise. Franck isn’t unlikeable or even all that naive, he’s just kind of lovesick. Even when presented with what he thinks he wants, he tries to latch on as hard as possible to avoid any of it slipping away. Michel, on the other hand, is a known murderer from the first moments he’s introduced, and despite the fact that he seems to like Franck and isn’t too possessive of him, it’s a slow descent to waiting to see if any shoes are going to drop, either in their relationship or the introduction of an investigator (Jerome Chappatte) who suspects foul play once the body of the former lover surfaces.
There’s a lot of slow burning set up, but it’s never dull because the characters and their interactions are continually fascinating. It’s a relationship story where it’s never made fully apparent if the relationship is borne from lust, love, or simply out of a sense of danger. Deladonchamps plays Franck as a man who definitely isn’t a subtle tactician when dealing with delicate subjects (his interrogating of Michel for details is positively cringe inducing, but purposefully so), but he’s also an incredible listener. A subplot involving Franck’s friendship with a somewhat sexually confused, recently divorced, sad sack, overweight, logger (Patrick D’Assumçao, in the film’s best and most humane performance) adds necessary depth to show that this young man is wiser than his current situation might suggest. Paou, on the other hand, is just as unsubtle, but he’s playing the kind of character who has probably gotten by on his charm and good looks his entire life and has precious little else to offer. His swagger, and indeed his violent streak, are an over compensation for a perceived lack of any real self-esteem. It’s a psychologically rich dynamic shared by the two actors who are well served by the attentive nature of Guiraudie’s direction.
In perhaps the most telling bit of direction, Guiraudie backs off on showing the actual sex acts in his film close up in the early going. In the earlier moments, the film’s more violent aspects are shown from a distance. But gradually as Franck begins to catch on to his less than ideal situation (a pivot point in the film signified by an exceptional scene of subtle emotional and psychological manipulation perpetrated by Michel), the sex becomes far more distant and less erotic, while the violence hits a lot closer to home. For its depiction of misplaced and dangerous desires as a sort of self-destructive circle doomed to collapse in on itself, Stranger by the Lake certainly proves itself worthy of the Directing Award and Queer Palm that it picked up at Cannes last year. But regarding the latter award, the themes are a lot more universal than such an award would suggest.