Stranger Danger

Indy Datta reviews Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake, which is in cinemas today.

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It’s more or less exactly at the mid-point of Alain Guiraudie’s Cannes prizewinner that the film’s protagonist Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) first discloses his name to the object of his romantic intentions (Christophe Pau’s buff, moustachioed Michel). Conventional screenwriting wisdom (and Guiraudie’s film is classically-shaped, supposedly in contrast to his more experimental and unruly earlier work, none of which I have seen) has it that this moment must represent a key inflection point of the film’s narrative. And indeed, it is around now that Franck tries to increase the scope of his relationship with Michel beyond bouts of reckless bareback fucking in the woods to incorporate such niceties as drinks, dinner, spending the night. Michel rebuffs Franck’s entreaties – reinforcing the idea that the lake of the title, a secluded gay cruising spot in the south of France, is a discrete zone where the suspension of the outside (straight) world’s rules of propriety also requires a certain suspension of identity. But such anthropological insight is not the most obviously striking thing about this stretch of the film: that’s the fact that Franck is ardently pursuing Michel despite having earlier witnessed him cold-bloodedly murdering his previous squeeze by drowning him in the lake at dusk. Far from putting Franck off, the killing seems to act on him as powerful aphrodisiac – both in its potent juxtaposition of sex and death, and also by creating a vacancy.

Despite its subject matter, Stranger by the Lake is ascetic rather than lurid – composed along strongly formalist lines, it doesn’t at all resemble, say, William Friedkin’s notorious Cruising; instead coming off as a chillier cousin to the work of those cinematic and literary scalpel-wielders working in the fascia between sex and death – Hitchcock, Highsmith and (particularly) the Chabrol of Le Boucher. This is a world where all flesh is on show (most of us are unlikely to have ever seen so many ballbags casually displayed in 90 minutes of viewing) but the mind and the heart are fathomless mysteries one probes at one’s peril.

The film’s formal scheme is most evident in the way Guiraudie treats his single location, dividing it up into 5 clear zones: the car park that acts as a transitional zone to the outside world, the main beach where the men sunbathe nude, eye each other up, chat and pair off; the smaller second beach where a lonely overweight divorcé (Henri, played by Patrick d’Assumçao) sits awkwardly in his t-shirt watching, befriended only by Franck; the woods leading up the hill away from the beaches towards the car park where couples go for privacy; and the lake itself. As well as observing a classical unity of place, Guiraudie is careful to delineate the film’s time-frame – Stranger is set over ten consecutive days (initially each day is punctuated by shots of the car park) and is shot with careful attention to the way natural light evokes the time of day (the sound design – there is no music – is more heightened and expressionistic).

Each zone initially contains just one kind of action (for example, Henri’s conversations with Franck, which provide most of the backstory and context that Guiraudie chooses to include), but this scheme is disrupted first when Franck witnesses the murder at distance from a hidden vantage point in the woods (in a bravura single long take); second when, after the victim’s body is discovered, the crime scene is invaded by police including an owlish detective who seems bewildered by the subculture he has stumbled upon and third when fear and desire overwhelm the functioning of the characters, the film’s fictional world, and finally the form of the film itself, and Stranger by the Lake finally succumbs to genre and to luridness.

The depiction of sex in Stranger by the Lake has been described as provocative – to some extent the effect of the judiciously deployed (and to some extent unsimulated) sex will depend on the viewer; an extension of Guiraudie’s play throughout the film with subjective and objective viewpoints and the question of the identity of the viewer. Different viewers will find the sex as depicted erotic, uncomfortable (let’s assume that anyone who’d find it more than uncomfortable wouldn’t be buying a ticket in the first place), or anthropologically remote – and I suspect that this will affect their reading of the film as a whole. I’m interested to note that gay critics seem to be more likely to have found Stranger to be at least somewhat uplifting and humane, while straight critics have been more struck by the film’s darkness.

Having personally found the sex in the film to be rather remote and clinical, which (a) is a function of my own heteronormative aesthetic prejudices, and (b)  like Michael Koresky says at Reverse Shot, “Anyone who claims the film skirts eroticism via its austerity may forget that there are few forms of entertainment more austere than pornography”, I would note that what I found more provocative in the film than the sex was this:

Guiraudie’s formalism in the depiction of his location led me to considering the key architectonic features of that location’s most important zone, the lake itself. What we see in the film is the lake’s surface, a mirror that reflects the sky, a horizon, and a potential route of transition from the world of the film to the outside world (in one scene, some straight guys and girls on a motorboat gawp, laugh and motor past in the distance). But there’s another way of looking at the lake’s surface, as an opaque/stygian plane that obscures the fact that, after a short pause for the beach, the downward slope from the car park continues to a place where death waits. When Franck goes swimming with Michel late in the film he knows that the fact that he is floating on that horizon is temporary. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Michel that gets him or the quasi-mythical giant silurus (cousin to the bottom-feeding catfish to which Javier Bardem compared the satanic vulva of Cameron Diaz in The Counselor) that the men of Stranger jokingly say lurks in the depth of the lake, or something else. And yet he still goes: not despite that, but because of it.

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