30 Best Films of the Past Decade: Stranger by the Lake, Guiraudie’s French Film Probes Transgressive Desire

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I had an interesting argument a couple of weeks ago with a cherished colleague and friend, who’s also a film critic.  He claimed, based on his common sense, that during the Coronavirus pandemic, viewers wish to see escapist entertainment, sort of fluffy and undemanding fare, such as broad comedies, dazzling musicals, fast-paced actioners and adventures.

I have never fully subscribed to the escapist theory–in essence-, that in dreary times, audiences would opt for everything and anything that would let them forget for a few hours the surrounding grim reality.

When an international magazine asked for my choices of the great films of the past decade, I began to construct lists of films that have impressed me at their initial release, and have continued to linger in memory in terms of ideas, motifs, characters, images, and sounds.

For purposes of simplicity, my list of the 30 best movies of the past decade is presented alphabetically.  Obviously, the films reflect my taste as I look back and revisit them from a distance.  As such, they are inevitably singular and biased.  There’s no need to agree with my filmic hierarchy, but as a critic, it’s my duty and privilege to expose readers to films that they might not have seen upon initial release, or wish to revisit from a different viewpoint–with the privileged perspective of time.

12. Stranger by the Lake (2013)

A highlight of the 2013 Cannes Film Fest, Stranger by the Lake is at once a transgressive feature (replete with graphic sex between men), an elegant suspense-thriller that would even make Hitchcock proud, and a morality tale about our libido and carnal knowledge.

It will not be an exaggeration to claim that at a time when very few gay-themed films are made, “Stranger by the Lake” stands out as an event film. It bears the significance that defined such seminal films as “Taxi Zum Klo” (“Taxi to the Toilet”) the 1981 German film that broke box-office records in the U.S., and the 1990 indie “Longtime Companion,” one of the first American indie features about AIDS.

Our Grade: A- (**** out of *****)

“Stranger by the Lake” earned Alan Guiraudie the Best Director prize in the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes.  When it premiered at Cannes, French filmmaker Guiraudie’s film (“L’inconnu du lac”) had film critics, gay and straight, buzzing for days.

After the critical acclaim in Cannes, the film was shown in Toronto and the New York Film Fests.  The estimable Strand Releasing, which is releasing this movie later this fall, should score big in both theatrical and ancillary situations.

stranger_by_the_lake_7Alain Guiraudie, who had previously helmed “The King of Escape,” makes a huge leap forward as a writer-director with this consistently absorbing, stylishly elegant tale.  The story is set entirely along the sun-dappled shores of a lake in Southeastern France. It’s a gorgeous site that serves as an area for cruising and actual sex among all kinds of guys.  Some are just walking around naked looking for erotic excitement—and dangerous encounters–while others are voyeurs.

The protagonist, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), is a handsome and confident man. Defying stereotypes of the kind of company studs like him tend to keep, Franck befriends a lonely chubby guy, but he is clearly sexually aroused by an arrogant hunk named Michel (Christophe Paou).

One evening, Franck witnesses how Michel is drowning one of his tricks.  To his own surprise, the brutal act doesn’t diminish his desire for the hunk–in fact, it piques his interest in Michel.

stranger_by_the_lake_4Guiraudie shows an extremely sharp eye for how gay men looking for anonymous sex behave in public places: the exchange of meaningful looks, the exhibition of full frontal nudity, the temptation to engage in anal intercourse out in the open.  For authenticity, the film contains unsimulated sex, shot with body doubles.

Franck and Michel’s relationship progresses, overcoming Franck’s increasing frustration by Michel’s refusal to meet him anywhere other than at the beach.

But what makes the film intriguing is not its depiction of sexual conduct but a deeper exploration of the moral issues (and lack of) that are involved in erotic desires and libidinal obsessions.

The tale’s third major character is Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), an older man who seeks solitude at the beach after breaking up with his girlfriend.  It is Henri, who has correctly intuited the events, who warns Franck about Michel, and it is him who confronts Michel about the murderer–at a price.  When Franck finds Henri with his throat slit, Henri tells him that he got what he wanted. Franck then observes Michel hitting violently and stabbing the inspector with a knife.

Guiraudie’s rigorous perspective is manifest in the film’s theme and style. The lush (and lust) landscape is stylishly-composed in widescreen tableaux that are at once entrancing and eerily disturbing.  He uses the forbidden site as the setting for a poignantly existential tale about life and death, lust and murder, desire and (im)morality.

stranger_by_the_lake_3The director said in a Cannes press conference that, thematically, he was influenced by the work of Georges Bataille, while stylistically he inspired by visual images he had seen of the Fire Island Pines (one of the gay Meccas in the U.S. right of Long Island, New York)

As scribe and helmer, Guiraudie carries the links between sex, murder, and death to the kind of extreme that even Almodovar, who had also dealt with those issues, has not dared.  Unlike Almodovar, he doesn’t go for excess or stylization, manifest in his most audacious pictures (“Law of Desire”).  Instead, he always remains within the realm of realism, which makes the tale’s emotional undercurrents and moral dilemmas all the more poignant.

Slow-building, replete with tensions and meticulously crafted, “Stranger by the Lake” is as provocative for its ideas about desire, transgression, exhibitionism and narcissism as for its graphically detailed scenes of gay sex. It depicts like no other film the mysteries of the libido, the anarchic and unexplainable nature of lust, and he leaves it up to the viewers to decide whether Franck’s desire is celebrated or reproved, or perhaps a combination of these two trends.

Spoiler Alert

In the last sequence, Michel calls out to Franck, claiming that he needs his love and wants to spend the night with him, but Franck does not respond.  Michel begins searching for him in the woods, and after a while, Franck emerges from his hiding place, uttering repeatedly his name.

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