STRANGER BY THE LAKE (ALAIN GUIRAUDIE, FRANCE)
UN CERTAIN REGARD
In Stranger by the Lake, director Guirardie creatively exploits its single location, bringing out various qualities from a lakeside cruising spot and its surrounding woods, cleverly conducting a slowly unwinding drama that steadily gains intrigue and mystery.
The shore is not just the film’s backdrop but a character in itself, and is even the primary subject. Spanning a few summer days, the area attracts a handful of men who swim, sunbathe, and seek out partners with whom to head into the woods. The forest takes on a labyrinthine dimension as men navigate through it in search of sexual encounters, with equal chances of embarrassment, disappointment, and pleasure. In isolating this location within its narrative, the film is emphasizing the way in which cruising is separate, to various degrees, from the characters' lives (which are not made clear to us). The protagonist, Franck, doesn’t understand this. In pursuit of a real romance, he develops two relationships in the film. One is with Henri, a middle-aged, heavyset man who sits off to the side from everyone else, never actually taking part in any sex, or even swimming. This relationship is merely conversational. Michel is the real object of Franck’s affection, and his desire for him is so strong that when he witnesses him drown another cruiser in the lake, he still pursues him, in spite of the threat to his life that Michel poses. Once Franck and Michel strike up a romance, it’s clear their interests diverge. Franck wants to meet outside of the cruising spot whereas Michel wants to keep things strictly casual. Meanwhile, the potential for violence and danger lurks beneath the film’s surface.
It’s a space with its own set of rules, something that is emphasized through instances of violations on the shore and in the woods. One such example is a peeping tom who wanders around masturbating, much to the chagrin of the love-makers in proximity—a comical running thread in the film. Each man seems to define the space differently. The common denominator is pleasure-seeking, but beyond that, perception differs. Guiraudie places a great deal of emphasis on the body, and the film's graphic sex scenes are not where the complications lie. Framed by nature, the writhing bodies take on an ethereal feel. However, the delicacy of this world is revealed in a moment in which a passing boat with unsuspecting people on it break the lakeside's illusory isolation. The struggle to integrate this world into the real one translates into an ability to uphold moral rules. The motivation behind Michel's crime is left up to our imagination, but in the context of how Guiraudie is playing with the location's disconnect from reality, it is as if that within it one can forget the responsibilities of their existence. One wonders if Michel would even consider committing such an act elsewhere, outside of a space where a person's ties to their normal lives are suspended.