Despite the sunshine, gentle breezes and placid waters, something wicked this way comes in “Stranger by the Lake,” French filmmaker Alain Guiraudie’s tantalizingly erotic fable of love, passion and death.
Though Guiraudie’s work often circles around the complexities of sexual urges among gay men, he’s never gotten as close to reality as he does in this film. At the same time, the writer-director casts a wide metaphorical net to examine that most fundamental human connection. Though the sex is fevered and explicit, the camera roaming over bodies with abandon, the questions raised are more abstract. “Stranger” is also a Class-A thriller — murders, mysteries and fear mingle alongside the men.
The setting is a lake in the French countryside, specifically the side of the lake that is a popular cruising spot. Towels, shoes and naked bodies are scattered along the shore, a mix of regulars and newcomers. Trees ring the lake as well, a respite from the sun and shelter for the sex that is more of a draw than the water.
In the years since that first lethal wave of AIDS in the 1980s, the link between sex and death in gay-themed films has become a constant. While Guiraudie incorporates the familiar condom debate — to use or not — he sets up a variety of risk factors for the coupling couples, including a possible serial killer.
The film centers on Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps). He’s young, handsome and a constant presence at the lake as he searches for companionship as well as sex. Henri (Patrick D’Assumcao) is the middle-aged loner who keeps his distance from the crowd, content to observe and engage in the occasional philosophical contemplation of love with the younger man. Michel (Christophe Paou) is the mysterious, magnetic one who seduces and discards lovers without a thought. Which makes him irresistible; Michel can have his pick.
With the stage set and the players in place, Guiraudie moves in for the kill. We witness it alongside Franck. It is near the end of the day; the place is deserted. Franck is about to emerge from the trees when he spots two swimmers in the middle of the lake. At first it looks like playful dunking, but only one man walks away.
It will be a few days before the body is found. By then Franck is drowning too. Michel has chosen him, and the passion Franck feels is overwhelming, blinding. Because they are both late to leave the lake each day, they become prime suspects in the case.
As the sense of danger rises and the risks to the men escalate, so does the intensity of their relationship. It makes for very physical performances, from Deladonchamps and Paou in particular, who are aggressively and frequently intertwined.
In Deladonchamps’ hands, Franck becomes like an adoring, and adorable, puppy, friendly to everyone he encounters, innocent until that is taken from him. Paou in contrast radiates menace and sensuality as Michel.
But it is emotional resonance that elevates the film beyond the ordinary. No doubt this contributed to Guiraudie’s win of the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard director prize last spring.
The filmmaker constructs a growing sense of dread with the calculated precision of a classic horror movie. Like watching some unsuspecting teen reach for the basement door, you want to scream “no” every time Franck reaches for Michel.
The undertow Franck feels is not left hanging in the air. Henri does his part in analyzing the risks Franck is taking. The police inspector weighs in as well, questioning why no one can produce a name or a phone number for the men they are having sex with. Though the question is “Don’t you care?,” the tone doesn’t come across as moralizing so much as musing.
Guiraudie has created a closed universe to pick apart the realities of cruising. The action never moves away from the lake, never follows any of the men home into whatever makes up the rest of their lives. Even day and night become defining elements, setting up an internal rhythm: cars pulling into parking spots each morning, Franck walking to the shore towel in hand, greeting the men he knows, deciding where to sit, whether to swim, whom to have sex with, how long to stay.
As the light leaves, so do the men, their cars, their stories. “The Stranger by the Lake,” however, lingers on, menacing, magnetic, impossible to resist.
‘Stranger by the Lake’
MPAA rating: Not rated.
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes, French with English subtitles.
Playing: Sundance Sunset Cinemas West Hollywood; Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Monica 4-Plex, Santa Monica.