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New Release Review - Stranger by the Lake

A young man falls for a murderer at a cruising spot for gay men.

Directed by: Alain Guiraudie
Starring: Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou, Patrick d'Assumcao, J√©rome Chappatte


Franck (Deladonchamps), a melancholy young man, spends his summer days on a stretch of beach reserved for gay men, indulging in small talk and casual sex with other visitors to the tranquil lake. He's attracted to the handsome Michel (Paou), who seems oblivious to Franck's interest and appears to be in a monogamous relationship with another man. One evening, Franck spies on Michel taking a dip in the lake with his lover, only to witness Michel murder the other man by holding him below the water until he drowns. Franck keeps his knowledge of what he's seen to himself when the newly single Michel begins to finally show an interest in him.
The late British film-maker Ken Russell related an anecdote concerning his controversial 1969 film, Women in Love. Upon the film's London release, Russell ventured out to watch the film in a theater located in one of the city's more conservative suburbs. Convinced of their impending outrage, Russell took a seat directly behind two elderly ladies and awaited his film's infamous homoerotic fireside naked wrestling bout between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates. The scene played out but the old dears remained silent until one turned to the other and quietly remarked "Lovely carpet, isn't it?"
Watching writer-director Alain Guiraudie's Stranger by the Lake, I couldn't help but relate to those old ladies. For all the film's controversially explicit sex scenes, I was most struck by the scenic beauty of the film's lakeside location.
This is because I simply couldn't engage with the film's thriller element. Guirardie employs a naturalistic style, eschewing a musical score and using simple, unobtrusive camera techniques. By adopting this approach he forces us to judge the film's events and characters in a more grounded, realistic manner, but the movie's central conceit is one more suited to a slick Hollywood thriller than a gritty Gallic drama.
It's difficult to sympathize, and even harder to empathize, with the film's protagonist, the melancholy Franck. He only indulges in a relationship with Michel after witnessing the latter committing a brutal act of murder, which makes it impossible to get behind him on a moral footing. Had Franck already been involved with Michel prior to discovering he's a cold blooded killer, it would have been a completely different movie, one far more engaging, as we would at least have something to cling onto in terms of accepting Franck's silence.
If you thought the sex scenes in Blue is the Warmest Colour were explicit, you ain't seen nothing yet. Stranger by the Lake features the most graphic, unsimulated homosexual couplings you'll see outside of a hardcore gay porno. As with last year's Cannes winner, the sex scenes add nothing to the film, but here they should be an integral part of the plot. We should be terrified for Franck during his make-out sessions with the murderous Michel but when Franck is so unconcerned himself, why should we care for his plight?
While the thriller elements fall flat, the film does have one interesting aspect in the character of Henri (d'Assumcao), a sad-faced, middle-aged man who visits the lake on a daily basis but keeps to himself and remains clothed, attempting to fool his fellow bathers, and himself, that he's not homosexual. The scenes between Henri and Franck are compelling, which makes the interjecting sub-Verhoeven thriller plot feel like an unwelcome intrusion.
6/10


Eric Hillis

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