Stranger by the Lake (2013): French Thriller is Best Gay Film in a Decade

A highlight of the 2013 Cannes Film Fest, though it was shown in the secondary series of Certain Regard, Stranger by the Lake is at once a transgressive feature (replete with graphic sex between men) and a fully realized thriller that would make Hitchcock proud.

“Stranger by the Lake” earned Guiraudie the Best Director prize in the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes. When it premiered at Cannes, French filmmaker Alain Guiraudie’s film (“L’inconnu du lac”) had critics buzzing for days. The movie was greeted with critical acclaim in Cannes and will be shown in Toronto and the New York Film Fests before getting theatrical distribution by Strand Releasing.

Alain 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, a gorgeous site that serves as cruising area and actual sex among all kinds of men, some of who walking around naked looking for erotic excitement—and dangerous encounters.

The protagonist, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), is a very handsome and confident man. Defying stereotypes of what company studs like him like to keep, Franck befriends a lonely, fat guy named Henri (Patrick D’Assumçao). However, he is clearly more sexually excited by another hunk, Michel (Christophe Paou). One evening, Franck witnesses Michel drowning one of his tricks, which, to his own surprise, doesn’t diminish his desire for the hunk–in fact, it piques his interest in Michel.

Guiraudie 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.

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

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. Indeed, the site serves as the setting for a poignantly existential tale about life and death, lust and murder, desire and (im)morality.

The director said in a Cannes press conference that thematically he was influenced by the work of Georges Bataille, and stylistically inspired by visual images he had seen of the Fire Island Pines (one of the gay meccas in the U.S.)

As scribe and helmer, Guiraudie carries the links between sex, murder, and death to the kind of logical extreme that even Almodovar, who had also dealt with these issues. Unlike Almodovar, he doesn’t go for excess, stylization, and farcical approach, instead remaining within the realm of realism, which makes the tale’s emotional undercurrents and moral dilemmas all the more poignant.

A 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, which go way beyond what Almodovar has shown in his most audacious pictures.