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CANNES — Switching gears after several surrealist comic features and medium-length works, French filmmaker Alain Guiraudie delivers a dark and at times, absorbing contemplation on love, sex, desire and murder with the minimalist homoerotic drama, Stranger by the Lake (L’Inconnu du lac). Set entirely in one summery location, this not-very-straight story of a man’s infatuation with a local killer is at once lighthearted and gloomy, passionate and pared-down, and despite some longueurs, it provides a powerful critique on the dangers of social isolation and carefree living.
A longtime veteran of the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight with such films as No Rest for the Brave and The King of Escape, Guiraudie’s been upgraded to Un Certain Regard this time, which could give this more somber effort better international exposure. Still, the story’s tricky subject matter and numerous sex scenes—some of them downright hardcore—may make it a tough sell beyond the LGBT fest and art-house circuit, along with the usual Francophone outlets.
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Establishing the film’s breezy, lethargic tone (one which may be too lethargic for some viewers) from the get-go, the action begins with a simple overhead shot of cars parked in the woods—a shot that Guiraudie will return to several times, in varying degrees of meaning and intensity. Eventually, we’re introduced to a secluded beachfront beside a beautiful lake, which is occupied by a handful of men swimming, sunbathing in the buff, and then disappearing into the adjacent forest to engage in anonymous hookups and humping.
One of them, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) reveals himself to be a particularly sweet and romantic guy, especially when it comes to his infatuation with Michel (Christophe Paou), a brawny Tom Selleck look-a-like who spends his days doing laps around the pond. When Franck’s not gawking at Michel, he makes small talk with a lonely husband, Henri (Patrick D’Assumcao), who’s less interested in exploring his lakeside libido than in finding simple companionship with the other men.
But the tranquil atmosphere quickly dissipates when, one evening, Franck sticks around later than usual and witnesses a young man’s drowning at the hands of Michel. The scene—a lengthy sundown sequence shot entirely from Franck’s point of view—is altogether transfixing, accompanied only by the sounds of flowing water and rustling leaves. It’s as if Guiraudie were suggesting that such an act could hold its own bizarre appeal, and indeed, instead of running to the cops, Franck decides to keep his mouth shut and soon strikes up a relationship with Michel.
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Shifting from coldblooded murder to carnal desire, the movie then focuses on the burgeoning relationship between the two men—one marked by several explicit lovemaking scenes, and Michel’s growing suspicion that Franck may be onto him. Meanwhile, nobody else at the lake seems to care much that one of its regulars has disappeared, and when a detective (Jerome Chappatte) starts snooping around, he observes their insouciant attitudes and at one point remarks aloud: “You have a funny way of loving each other.”
It’s a strong indictment of a lifestyle that Guiraudie seems to both lionize and condemn, highlighting the bucolic beauty of the men’s nonchalant couplings while at the same time revealing how cut off from reality they truly are. Franck is clearly aware of this, but so caught up in his passion for Michel that he’s willing to keep up appearances, until the story shifts to a thriller-like denouement which, with its knife-wielding finale, is strangely reminiscent of William Friedkin’s Cruising—another movie about gay decadence and serial killers, albeit one with a different agenda.
Featuring pristine cinematography by Claire Mathon (Three Worlds) and delicately layered sound design by Nathalie Vidal (Beau Travail), Stranger by the Lake invites you into its alluring and peaceful world, only to gradually uncover the darkness beneath it. Likewise, the naturalistic performances are extremely calm, even friendly, which makes the events depicted all the more unsettling. As Henri, the sole outsider in this cloistered world, relative newcomer D’Assumcao (Coursier) provides the film’s most moving turn, serving as a silent watcher to a place whose moral compass has subtly spun out of control.
Production companies: Les Films du Worso
Cast: Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou, Patrick D’Assumcao, Jerome Chappatte, Mathieu Vervisch
Director, screenwriter: Alain Guiraudie
Producers: Sylvie Pialat, Benoit Quainon
Director of photography: Claire Mathon
Production designers: Roy Genty, Francois Labarthe, Laurent Lunetta
Editor: Jean-Christophe Hym
Sales Agent: Les Films du Losange
No rating, 100 minutes
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