Home Video Hovel- Stranger By the Lake, by David Wester
Stranger by the Lake takes place entirely at a lakeside beach where gay men cruise for sex. The nude bodies of the beach’s inhabitants become a commonplace sight as they swim, sunbathe, and stroll through the nearby woods in search of a place to engage in their sexual pursuits. As they walk through nature, mostly in silence and accompanied only by the sound of the wind whispering through the trees, they resemble ghosts going through an empty ritual they cannot help but endure for eternity, silent in their acquiescence to their fate. With its languid pace and world of characters in a state of constant sexualization, the film is suffused with a hazy, laid-back erotic air that is at once arousing and hypnotic.
This beautiful, understated film follows Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a young man who frequents the beach, mainly, it seems, because he’s smitten with the handsome, charming Michel (Christophe Paou). One day, spurned in his attempts to connect with Michel, he strikes up a conversation with the enigmatic and lonely Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao). Henri is older, a recently divorced man of somewhat ambiguous sexuality who sits, alone, at the edge of the cruising area. He doesn’t seem, himself, to understand exactly why he’s there (his claim that he’s there because he and his wife spent time near the beach has the air of a lie he’s telling himself), but the two men find a connection in their mutual loneliness. Franck confesses his deep love for Michel to Henri; Henri ruminates on the sadness of his life. The uneasy relationship between these two men is the bedrock of the film, and the two actors seem to effortlessly convey the way two needy souls can instantly connect despite a host of differences. Their friendship evolves into a sweet father/son dynamic through the course of the film, and the simple kindness they evince toward one another reveals how the other relationships in the film are soured with competition, paranoia, and jealousy.
Stranger by the Lake is mainly a character piece, but it is, in some ways, also a thriller. In addition to the growing friendship between Henri and Franck, there is a murder and a mystery at the heart of the film. Interestingly enough, the mystery is not about who committed the murder or why. There is no ambiguity here. Not too long into the film, Franck does finally manage to attain the object of his affections, Michel, but only after witnessing Michel drown another needy lover in the lake. The mystery, here, is why the young, otherwise reasonable Franck is willing to continue a relationship with a man he knows is a murderer. Like all good mysteries, there is no real answer to this question.
Stranger by the Lake delivers a great deal of genuine, palpable suspense. As tension grows in the relationship between the more emotionally needy Franck and the very emotionally unavailable Michel, every walk into the woods or swim in the lake they take with one another seems ominous, doomed. The tension is diffused by their intense sexual connection (which, I guess I should probably point out, is graphically depicted), but this is just a temporary relief to the imbalance in their relationship. If Michel is as cold-blooded as his previous actions would indicate, violence, it seems, must erupt again and soon. Amidst this troubled relationship, the older, wiser Henri tries to help the young man, and a triangle of sorts develops—Franck is torn between the satisfaction of his honest relationship with Henri and the self-destructive love he feels for Michel.
By the end, Stranger by the Lake reveals itself to be concerned with the indifference of its characters to the fate of their peers. The culture of the lake is one where immediate desires are fulfilled. People in the film seem only able to make demands of one another. Nobody except Henri seems willing to do anything for another person (and even his single act of selflessness is tainted by a confession of selfishness). There are repeated moments in the film where characters jealously protect what is “theirs” from others, be it a boyfriend or just a good spot in the woods. The car of the murder victim sits, unremarked upon, for days and after the dead body washes up, the men resume their pursuits in the same location a short time later as if nothing had happened. At one point, one character wonders out loud what kind of community this is where people don’t look out for one another. To this question, the film supplies a handy, sympathetic answer in Franck. He’s unable to tear himself away from his lover despite the danger and despite the growing unspoken threat between them. If he is any indication, the community can’t protect itself if its members aren’t even interested in protecting their own well-being from the temptations that lure them into mortal danger.