When the erotic thriller gets invited to the movie-genre ballroom dance, it’s always with wide rolling eyes; and a hanging question as to whether or not this is a mistake bigger than your parents’ decision not to use a condom. Films like Basic Instinct etc may have been popular at the time of their release, but you can’t say that wasn’t because of how proud they were of the quality of their star’s bare flesh. But then you think of movies like David Cronenberg’s Crash (don’t get confused with Paul Haggis’ Oscar stealing bollocks on me now) and remember that they can actually be rather good; or at least I do because I think Cronenberg’s Crash is great. Here’s Stranger By The Lake, continuing my little marathon of LGBTQ movies that don’t get talked about enough for this year’s pride month, and seemingly making up for how little full frontal male nudity there’s been in cinema over the years – compared to female.
Stranger By The Lake is a French film that premiered at the same Cannes festival as Blue Is The Warmest Colour and set off some tongue-in-cheek comparison reviews. Its story takes place entirely at a naturist cruising spot for gay men (never once deviating to any other location) and concerns a fellow named Franc, who falls in lust with another handsome hot spot regular named Michel – who resembles a Greek sex god crossed with a 70’s porn star. But oh dear, it looks like Michel already has a boyfriend, sorry Franc, but no matter – while watching from the trees, Franc witnesses Michel MURDER his boyfriend by drowning him in the water, so he and Franc can promptly begin a marathon of raw outdoor sex.
Franc is clearly intimidated by Michel when he first approaches him post-murder, but is so taken by his presence (and possibly finding the murder a turn-on, a murder I think Michel has probably committed numerous times before) that he can’t help his desire, and choses not to inform the inspector investigating the killing as to what he saw. With that in mind, I’m sure you can imagine how monstrously intense the film gets when Franc and Michel go swimming in the lake together, and Franc (and the audience) wonders if he will be next. I mean no exaggeration, nor hyperbole, when I say I do not have one single issue with Stranger By The Lake on any level whatsoever; now’s the time to let you know we’re talking about one of my favourite movies here.
I was unfamiliar with director Alain Guiraudie before this film, but have been trying to see more of his work ever since; here he shows a rare ability to mix incredibly high tension with the release of sexual satisfaction – the sex almost coming off as a substitute conclusion to murder after seemingly building towards the latter. Is this movie gratuitous? You might think so, it’s got the most screen time dedicated to the naked male form I think I’ve ever seen in a single legitimate film, however that’s also kind of the whole point. The erotic part of this “erotic thriller” is attached to its twin at every major organ – you cannot have one without the other; and did I mention there’s one or two shots of un-simulated intercourse? That’s how serious the film is about it all, serious yet laid back I should say, presenting as if nothing could be more normal and expecting you to feel the same.
It’s very good at getting the audience to rile themselves up during the more subtle of its sinister moments, very little is outright exposited and I found myself filling in any and all blanks with very little effort. One scene that comes to mind is when the two lovers are having an intense conversation about questions put to them by the inspector, and it becomes an “I know that you know that I know” back and forth without either of them just coming out with it. This is further aided by absolutely zero music found anywhere in the story, diegetic or otherwise, and an aggressively minimalist style – there isn’t much coverage during conversation scenes and the camera is almost always static.
By tricking you into thinking it’s holding back on the surface, your imagination kicks into gear and fills your head with all sorts of possibilities: “is Michel going to drown Franc as well? No, they’ve abruptly cut to them having sex now, but that doesn’t mean he still won’t later – I don’t know because the film won’t tell me straight”. Michel even goes out of his way to keep the relationship devoid of emotional attachment and it stays completely unpredictable as a result, and the only real connection Franc can find is with an older man who frequents the lake; not for sex, not to swim, he doesn’t even get undressed, he simply wants to keep a clear head during an unhappy life. He and Franc talk often when Franc isn’t cruising or with Michel, and their chats raise interesting questions about what real intimacy is, as well as what we’re all thinking – that Franc should be running away from this obviously dangerous man instead of pursuing coitus with him.
Stranger By The Lake is a luscious film to observe but frightening to watch, it’s as steamy as it is tense, I believe the word for that is “exciting”. Despite being a slow burn, its brilliant marrying of sexual tension with the usual kind makes it a rollercoaster of a film, the drowning of Michel’s first partner is one continuous take and it does a number on your mind if you like to assume how films are made as you watch. It’s lean, directed within an inch of its life, a little creepy at times, the pacing is deadly and, of course, it’s also hot as hell! What can I say? This is one of those near-extinct occasions wherein the debate over art VS porn was dead on arrival, I don’t think Guiraudie or the film itself really care which one you think it falls under, I guess if you tell him you think it’s porn, he’ll just nod and say “then that’s what it is”. And that right there is the key to making it definitively art to me, it sticks it to the man and couldn’t give less of a fuck than a medieval eunuch.