Many modern filmmakers chase the feeling Hitchcock elicited so regularly in his golden years, and get praised simply for attempting. While they may get at the fun, the games in which that director played, they miss out more regularly on the emotion; the icky, lurid feeling of hate, jealousy, and self-loathing that motivates so many of his protagonists, that sensation that comes from seeing the worst side of yourself. Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake has been so compared, and, I am pleased to say, not without reason.
Where Hitchcock, however, was restrained by a censorship body (often real, sometimes imposed), Guiraudie is magnificently unencumbered, so much so that he freely portrays unsimulated acts of sexual intercourse. I note this not to put you off or register any note of disgust or anything of the sort; I just want to let you know what the movie is. In so doing, however, Guiraudie normalizes the sex act that motivates so many men to flock to a gorgeous, natural bathing area. On the other shore, families may come for fun in the sun, but this little space is all their own. The film, which takes place over the course of a week, quickly assumes a clockwork structure – the same shot of various men arriving, the same shot of a man sitting alone, the same shot of other men coupling off, the same shot of a slightly off-putting man looking in on the intercourse of others. All of this becomes ingrained, natural, beyond reproach.
Franck (a slightly plain, but effectively so, Pierre Deladonchamps) is our center. Recently out of a relationship, the lake serves as a way to make quick connections that probably won’t last, but hey, you never know. He befriends Henri (Patrick D’Assumçao), himself out of a long relationship with a woman, open-minded but shocked that Franck can live purely as a homosexual. Soon, there is Michel (Christophe Paou), an exceedingly handsome man who nonetheless we feel Henri is right in calling “kind of creepy.” Nevertheless, Franck continues to pursue him, and is far too wrapped up in their sudden relationship by the time he sees Michel drown another man. Certainly too wrapped up to do the right, or even sensible thing, about any of it.
For all that haunts his protagonist, thankfully, Guiraudie does not take the route that the Single Mans and Weekends of the queer cinema world have in making the fact of homosexuality one of his grand struggles. Even when the police inspector finally arrives to start asking questions, there’s no “you people” moment, no one to antagonize and marginalize the men beyond the circumstances of which any conscious audience is aware. This not only further normalizes them, it keeps the drama focused right where it should be – on the relationships, and the fear and uncertainty that can develop when you put yourself out there entirely to total strangers. In making violence drive so much of the drama, Guiraudie considers the slightly predatory nature of such an environment (Michel isn’t the only one who looks at Franck as a potential target) without fully dismissing the pleasure therein.
Guiraudie undercuts his tension in the end, but nevertheless, this is a surprisingly thoughtful thriller that uses the mundane to gradually tighten the noose his protagonist seems bent on tying himself.