Sex and danger are entwined in the erotic thriller Stranger By The Lake
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Sex and danger are entwined in the erotic thriller Stranger By The Lake

A sensation at Cannes 2013—where sexually explicit films loomed large in the general discussion—Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger By The Lake takes place over 10 days at a secluded beach. Every afternoon, men gather to swim, sunbathe, and make small talk before retiring to the woods to get it on. Hardcore couplings notwithstanding, the movie initially appears to unfold in the same farcical, deadpan-comic register as Guiraudie’s 2009 The King Of Escape. The first interloper into the community is Henri (Patrick D’Assumçao), who identifies as straight but has selected this very naked, all-male locale because he finds it social, a choice that perplexes protagonist Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps). Their easygoing friendship soon becomes a counterpoint to more sinister events: One day, at dusk, Franck clandestinely observes his new crush, Michel (Christophe Paou), drowning a lover in the lake. In a single, sensational long take, the audience sees the killing at a distance, then watches the murderer swim ashore, catch his breath, dress, and trudge off toward the parking lot.

What will Franck do? The erotic allure of death has long been a staple of thrillers, but early reviewers—and Guiraudie himself—have discussed Stranger’s specific resonance as an AIDS metaphor. The hero, who makes a point of shunning condoms, wants to sleep with Michel despite the knowledge that it might kill him. (Michel’s facial hair also has a distinctive ’80s vibe.) Franck’s attraction seems predicated on a mix of carnal desire and simple curiosity—an eagerness to see how much he can prod Michel to admit, secrecy being one form of intimacy. Their complicity may be mutual, as Michel, fearing exposure, tests the boundaries of Franck’s loyalty.

This psychosexual dance forms the crux of Stranger By The Lake, and the film’s circumscribed scope is simultaneously its most intriguing and most limiting factor. Because these characters quite pointedly never meet anywhere else (Michel rebuffs Franck’s entreaties for a more conventional date), they remain strangers to each other. The genre elements don’t hold much apparent interest for Guiraudie, particularly when a weirdly casual investigator (Jérôme Chappatte) begins making inquiries. The detective raises the sorts of questions about motivation—isn’t it weird that no one cares about the missing man?—the film otherwise prefers to treat as abstractions. As withholding as it may be in terms of narrative, Stranger places rare faith in the viewer’s visual sense. Guiraudie presents his widescreen long takes with little inflection, conjuring suspense simply from the sounds of crackling leaves and other hallmarks of the natural (or is it au naturel?) realm. 

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