A handful of critically acclaimed, awards-nominated, and highly visible LGBT films have enjoyed some level of prominence over the past few years, such as Andrew Haigh’s excellent Weekend, Ira Sachs’ Independent Spirit Award-nominated Keep The Lights On, and Steven Soderbergh’s Emmy and Golden Globe winning Behind The Candelabra, but all of them shied away from actually showing homosexual sex. This isn’t inherently bad, of course, but when you compare it to the considerably smaller sub-category of lesbian films, it’s a bit odd that Blue Is The Warmest Color was able to win critical approval and a Palme d’Or in spite of (or because of, some of its critics may argue) its explicit lesbian sex scenes. The easiest explanation for this is a fear that audiences won’t clamor to see a film with gay sex in it (even the incredibly tame Behind The Candelabra was rejected by every major studio, a fact that gets harder to believe with each passing day), whereas legions of straight men find fewer things sexier than lesbians. With that said, Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake, which doesn’t shy away from nudity, sex, blowjobs, or ejaculations, may be an important film in queer cinema if for no other reason than for proving that a film with explicit gay sex can find critical approval as well as a large audience.
It certainly deserves to, as the film is, if nothing else, a master class in direction. I cannot claim any expertise (or even elementary understanding) of the gay cruising scene, but Stranger By The Lake renders it with startling tonal control, which also leads me to assume a high degree of verisimilitude. It’s a remarkably small film, taking close in four closely connected exteriors: The beach, which is the preferred site for the cruisers to lay naked and socialize, and where Franck (Pierre de Ladonchamps) both befriends Henri (Patrick D’Assumçao), who sits in the sun apart from the cruising scene and attempts to keep his sexuality unclear, and falls in love with Michel (Christophe Paou, who could easily be mistaken on the streets for Tom Selleck); the lake, where a few lyrical swimming scenes and a murder take place; the parking lot, which is used to register the passing of time; and “the woods,” as the characters romantically refer to it. These limitations are, in some ways, a cheat, as they make these characters, which sometimes see each other at dinners or happy hours, more enigmatic than they actually are, but Stranger by the Lake is as much a study in locations as in people, and the trade-off is largely successful.
The film primarily utilizes two-shots, in which characters sit together and exchange information, first casual details of their lives, then about the film’s drowning, in order to progress the narrative. But these are broken up by long shots in which we witness from afar the nervous tics, self-consciousness (and lack thereof), and social rules of cruising, as well as a number of silent lyrical passages from all times of day that serve to show off the ocean, the romantic swaying of the woods, and, occasionally, the mountain expanse in the distance. The static two-shots and long-shots suggest a non-judgmental attitude about the characters, and they also keep a firm grasp on tone and control the pace, but the lyrical passages make the film’s gradual turn from realism to abstract thriller feel entirely appropriate and provide countless painterly compositions of nature, perhaps the most memorable aspect of the film. This beauty comes largely from Guiraudie’s masterful use of light, returning repeatedly to the lake to show where the sun hits the water, being unafraid to let blackness fill the screen entirely, and repeatedly contrasting that darkness with the shock of sunlight the next day, as if day and night are separate worlds, the comfort and routine of the former slipping slowly and uncomfortably into the danger and uncertainty of the latter before abruptly returning. This precision helps make the setting the most developed character of all, although the script wisely focuses on psychology even in its most plot-driven moments. Henri and Franck are complex figures, working out their views on love and friendship with each passing moment, giving the audience plenty to ponder even as alternatingly cryptic and direct attempts to exchange information make the murder, treated with both gravity and disinterest, feel increasingly urgent. Even the numerous sex scenes seem to have little interest in titillation, instead further detailing the lifestyle on display and developing character attitudes about love and sex.
Politically, the film is too simple, essentially equating unprotected sex and promiscuity with the dangers of a mass murderer, symbolized most prominently through the transformations in tone and action that take place in the woods. It’s an AIDS metaphor in effect if not intention, although the lack of force and the abundance of directorial control in letting out these themes makes it hard to knock the film too hard for its well-intended (albeit old-fashioned) messages. Instead, Stranger By The Lake’s biggest flaw is in its ending, which begins as a masterful point of release in which every conversation and encounter immediately seems to have been an important building block to the climactic events, holds the suspense in minimal light for several minutes, and then cops-out, as if asking the viewer to discuss “what happens next?” at its conclusion. For a film that, until that point, so effortlessly backgrounds plot and turns its “thriller” aspects into abstract questions, ending the film by forcing a discussion of concrete details goes from disappointing to nearly painful, and all the film’s successes seem to be cast aside in favor of purely narrative speculation. It’s enough to make the film fade in memory, if not in impact.