Far from Puritanical and chaste, my film sensibilities are such where so-called “graphic” content is usually lucky if it barely forces me to raise a single eyebrow. But they haven’t invented a cartoon emoji expressive enough for the face I made when I realized just how explicit writer/director Alain Guiraudie’s L’inconnu du Lac (Stranger by the Lake) was going to get. Surely they would cut away before… Nope. There it is. Oh, and there that is. And there that is inside of that. Well then…
The question you have to ask whenever the line between pornography and legitimate art becomes a blurred line even rhythmic misogynist Robin Thicke wouldn’t touch is whether such content is (A) necessary and (B) effective. Stranger by the Lake earns a split: Guiraudie could have done the same with less, but he does get the response he wanted. The raw, carnal ferocity with which these men tear into each other is both a nonverbal explanation for questionable decisions I’ll explain in a minute and a way to create an intimate world most of us will never know.
The entirety of the film takes place on a secluded beach where Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) and a handful of gay men spend the day cruising. It’s basically how your homophobic grandfather envisions all of France to look. The men vary in age and appearance, and you can appreciate all of those differences because you see every single inch of every single one of them. Franck is lovelorn and yearning. Interestingly, so is Henri (Patrick d'Assumçao), although not quite for the same thing.
Although he’s done sexytime with dudes, Henri longs for a companion to replace the void of his wife; Franck, on the other hand, wants hardcore mega-love, the kind with bruises and loss of all sanity. He finds it with Michel (Christophe Paou). Michel is a lithe, tan, mustachioed French gay dreamboat. He swims good, kisses better and just so happens to be an unrepentant murderer. Franck knows about that last one because he watched Michel drown his last lover in the lake they later swim in together. This doesn’t stop Franck from falling head over heels for said killer, despite Henri’s advice that maybe that’s a bad, bad choice.
Stranger by the Lake is Hitchcock by way of Grindr. Had the ratio been 2:1 in the favor of Hitchcock’s influence instead of vice versa, it would have been a harrowing chiller about the depraved nature of love itself and not hardcore erotica. Thankfully, unlike Blue is the Warmest Color, which featured a male gaze-filmed lesbian love sequence, the sex here feels unquestionably authentic. But while there remains an absurd phobia of male-on-male physical affection in mainstream American popular culture, this French import sacrifices too much content in favor of copious copulation.
Still, Guiraudie is an artist worth watching, with a gift for tense pacing and methodical menace. Hopefully, what we get from him next time out is slightly less “sins of the flesh” and slightly more sinister suspense.
Grade = C+