A mesmerizing, if hermetic film by Alain Guiraudie, it comes preceded by its notorious sexually explicit gay sex scenes. It's supposed to be a thriller, but if so, it is more concerned with the mating habits of gay men cruising by a remote lake, than by the typical plot machinations of murder mysteries. I found Stranger By The Lake mostly tedious and repetitive, and I desperately wanted it to cut to the chase promised by the promise of a thriller, but it does have an obsessional quality that is hard to shake off. It's as if the film is like its characters, obsessed with the cruising ritual, dispassionate about meaningful emotional connections.
Guiraudie comes back again and again to the starting point. The first images are lovely and bracing. Franck, a very handsome young man, arrives in his car to look for men to fuck. There are naked men at the beach and naked men coming out of the evergreen woods as if they were creatures grazing in their rightful habitat. The leisurely scenes of nature, of naked men at ease, reminded me of earnest animal life documentaries without the voiceover.
In a few economic strokes Guiraudie introduces a small cast of characters. There's the guy who loudly asks where are the horny women, the paranoid guy who is obsessed with privacy, the nerdy perv who likes to watch. Yet there seems to be no real connection or camaraderie other than getting each other off and exchanging pleasantries. Even in the heat of Summer, and considering that they are there mostly for sex, the place seems oddly muted and cold.
An event stands out. Franck strikes up a conversation with Henri, a chubby loner who likes to sit away from everybody. Through the course of the movie they develop a friendship; the only relationship that has emotional dimension in the movie, and not coincidentally, one where there is no sex involved. But Franck has a crush on Michel, a textbook beefcake reminiscent of Tom Selleck, so hirsutely handsome as to be borderline ugly.
The problem with Guirardeau's dispassionate approach is that despite the scenes of graphic sex, which did not seem to me any different from run of the mill porn, we never really remotely feel Franck's longing. He claims to want this man but we don't see it happening. I thought of In The Mood For Love, a film that is about nothing but longing, and in which nothing happens, yet the feeling of repressed desire is intoxicating, because it is shown in myriad gestures. Here it is the opposite: every desire gets easily fulfilled, but the whole thing is as sexy as a piece of cardboard. Granted, I am not a constituent, but I'd be curious to know if gay men find this movie erotic. I found it anything but.
Because we never experience the frisson of Franck's obsession, and because the object of his affection is emotionally unappealing, I found it hard to relate to what happens next, which is an intellectual illustration of amour fou.
Guirardeau's conceit is that the fear of intimacy, the denial of an emotional bond between these men, the strict emphasis on sexual desire, results in behavior that is far more shocking than the sex itself. Suddenly a young man is gone, his towel and sneakers and car sit abandoned for days, and no one at the beach bothers to ask. Franck is more interested in having Michel all to himself, in spite of knowing that he is extremely bad news.
Guirardeau takes forever to sprinkle plot into his observational perch, but when he does, it comes in a few bold, effective strokes. A detective shows up, asking questions. Franck understands that his life is in jeopardy and still proceeds to engage in reckless and ultimately self-destructive mind games. He too, comes back again and again to a place of great risk, but he can't help it. He is head over heels, perhaps in love with desire itself, in love with danger, and with death itself.