The French led the way last year in the homoerotically-charged film circuit with the Palme d’Or-winning Blue is the Warmest Colour. The three-hour coming of age tale gained notoriety when the two lead actresses gave less-than-positive accounts of their experiences making the film, as well as there being a fair amount of talk awarded to the extended sex scenes. With that being said, however, Blue was released to near-universal acclaim, with critics singling out its leads’ powerful performances and its faithful and honest depiction of first love.
And the French have succeeded again, this time focusing on the cruising sessions of a group of gay men populating a nudist beach. Comparatively more under the radar, but not without controversy, Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake centres on Franck, excellently portrayed by Pierre Deladonchamps, a character walking the boundary between experience and naivety whilst searching for a connection. He becomes enamoured with Michel (played by Christophe Paou), a striking and enigmatic but dangerous fellow beachgoer. Guiraudie expertly manipulates the audience into questioning the decisions of the innocent party: is Franck attracted to Michel’s darker side?
A success at Cannes like Blue is the Warmest Colour – it won the Queer Palm – Stranger by the Lake matches Kechiche’s sense of uninhibited homoeroticism presented without taboo. This frankness is mirrored in the film’s shots of the almost overwhelmingly exquisite surrounding landscape. These, in turn, parallel the role of the audience – we become voyeurs, viewing the cruising from a distance but also complicit in Franck’s moral dilemma. He is a character to be celebrated as well as pitied.
The film creates an air of mystery with the camera’s long shots and intense gazes across the shimmering lake, reflecting the level of secrecy that permeates the story, not only from Michel but also with the concealed nature of the surrounding woodland. By being filmed around just the one location – the eponymous lake – the characters are simultaneously exposed and isolated. Their vulnerability is maintained by the boundary of the lake, which restricts them from what is referred to on several occasions as the family-friendly opposite shore. Like Michel, the lake’s beauty and allure masks its potential lethality. It is this marriage of the bucolic setting, vivid cinematography and committed performances that give the film a beguiling tone, one that is entrenched in the tranquil menace that permeates it.
Shadowy and darkly humorous, Stranger by the Lake is not in the same vein as Hollywood erotic thrillers. Echoing the idyllic beauty, the film is a more subdued affair – its visuals are relaxed and hypnotic, its sex is calm and naturalistic, its impact is insidious but undeniably disturbing.
Stranger by the Lake is in UK cinemas now.