14-20 March DCA
Camus’s L’etranger meets Al Pacino’s Cruising in Stranger by the Lake (L’Inconnu du lac), the story of a killer at the gay beach on Lake Sainte Croix in the Côte D’Azur. Alain Guiraudie, winner of the Best Director award at Cannes in 2013, seems singularly uninterested in thinking about psychological motivation for the characters who play generic roles in this erotic thriller. The film instead creates a bizarre disconnection between its stunning pastoral cinematography, its frank and honest depiction of gay male sex, and its generic plot. Yes, we can understand why Franck, an aging 30-something ‘twink’, falls head over heels, so to speak, for the dashing and mustached stud Michel (a cross between Mastroianni and Tom Selleck). We might even be able to understand why, out of pity and lack of erotic interference, he befriends the obese loner Henri who sits down the beach and watches, but we are never given insight into Michel’s decision to drown his initial lover, the man in the Red Renault. Psychopathic kicks?
Critics seem remarkably unfazed by senseless throat slitting avec balls-out bare-backing (filmed with a refreshing disregard for American censorship codes) in the pine woods above the crushed granite beach that falls sensuously into the aqua marine sparkle of the mysterious but inviting lake. Henri claims that 30-foot catfish called silurus dwell beneath the tanned genitalia of swimmers who glide through lapping waters with a stunning grace. Guiraudie’s medium shot tracking and zooming in on Franck and Michel swimming, unhurried by the call of frenzied shot-making in recent Hollywood film making, is an aesthetic experience of remarkable intensity. The bubbling and breathing sound effects of the swimmers, the granite tinged reflection on the blue waters as Franck glides naked through the glimmer, create some of the film’s most striking moments.
Stranger establishes its chronology through the simple but compelling device of unity of place. The high angle shot of the parking lot beside the trail to the beach acts as our guide to the passage of time, the presence of the cruisers, and the unfortunate abandonment of the little red Renault by Michel’s first victim. Franck has witnessed the murder from his perch in the trees but is too much in love with Michel to come clean, even to his friend Henri (who, by the way, is on to Casanova’s weirdness). When the parking lot is empty, we see the helicopter over head, signaling discovery of the catfish-chewed corpse. Franck remains smitten and tight-lipped, but he is also nonjudgmental. Viewers have to wonder why this liaison dangereuse with the dashingly circumcised but aloof Michel can harbor such appeal, especially since Michel refuses even to join Franck for a happy-hour cocktail. The murder investigation conducted by the rather over-dressed and heavily bespectacled Inspector Damroder does not hinder the fellatial three-ways in the bulrushes. The policeman shows up like an appliance salesman to question the anonymous naturists who have quickly slipped into gym shorts to greet this snoopy, ectomorphic Columbo. In one wonderfully coded thriller scene, Damroder flashes his headlights on a frightened, deer-in-the-headlights Franck, played with particular dumbstruckedness by Pierre Deladonchamps.
I won’t tell you what happens; suffice it to say it’s not a pretty picture. Well, the picture is pretty, but what happens ain’t exactly what we look for in a trip to the South of France. Maybe such a disjunction gives the film its disturbing edge, maybe Guiraudie is saying something important about the heartlessness of bath houses and faceless fucking in gay culture, but I’m not sure such critique warrants a return to the monster days of Jeffrey Dahmer, Hannibal Lecter, and Serpico—no matter how strange but exciting the testicle festival on the shores of lac mystérieux.