TIFF 2013: ‘Stranger By the Lake’ (dir. Alain Guiraudie, 2013)

Stranger By the Lake

France, 2013 – dir. Alain Guiraudie

In its tactility, its attention to place and space, and its unabashed focus upon the male body, something of Denis’s influence can be felt in Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake (L’Inconnu du lac), along with that of François Ozon, whose See the Sea (1997) contains a central sequence that seems to have inspired the premise of Stranger By the Lake. Guiraudie’s movie — a Cannes sensation that deservedly scooped this year’s Queer Palm and Best Director gongs — unfolds entirely at a gay cruising area on the French coast where men flop naked on the beach, appraise each other and head to the woods for more intimate encounters. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) has pitched up at the spot for the summer and passes his time chatting to the solitary bisexual Henri (Patrick Dassumçao), lusting after the mustachioed Michel (Christophe Paou) and being lusted after, in turn, by the harmless voyeur Eric (Mathieu Vervisch) whose attentions he continually rebuffs.

A murder occurs — and gets witnessed by Franck — but Stranger By the Lake is no Crusing rip-off. Rather, the movie’s tone is tranquil, watchful and calm, based mainly around Guiraudie’s patient observation of the men’s various interactions. These yield often surprising admissions and some pearls of behavioural comedy, not least thanks to Eric’s appearances: forever fondling himself as he observes the assignations of others and pulling up his shorts to beat a retreat when he’s admonished for peeking. The movie features as much chatting as shagging, though what there is of the latter is eye-poppingly explicit, going further than either Denis or Ozon have dared so far. At times, indeed, the movie’s sunny summer setting and talky tendencies call to mind Eric Rohmer let off the leash: “Anal at the Beach”, perhaps?

Aside from its confident merging of moods, what really distinguishes Stranger By the Lake, though, is its attention to atmosphere and the primal, elemental quality that Guiraudie gives to the material. Throughout, the movie makes the viewer aware of natural sounds: the lap of the water, the wind in the trees, the men’s groans of pleasure or pain, the rhythm of their conversation. The quietness, punctuated by such sounds, gets to you, casting an at first seductive and ultimately an eerie spell, as Guiraudie leaves one character alone, calling his lover’s name into the dead of night.

RATING 8 / 10