An ’87 Renault pulls slowly into a parking lot that could be anywhere, choking and spitting gravel as it comes slowly to a halt.
Cut to ebbing and flowing bluer-than-blue water and a pale sky with wisps of clouds, lush, expansive woods, slowly rustling leaves, sun raking over a rocky beach.
Add a full-on nude shot of a male sunbather, and, immediately, all the fixings of an idyllic French vacation are in place.
So begins Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake (L’inconnu du Lac), set to open at New Haven’s Bow Tie Criteron Cinemas Friday.
Only minutes into the film, we are introduced to Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a young man who comes to the beach to “cruise” (French: draguer) among its gay population during the summer months. He quickly befriends Henri (Patrick D’Assumcao), a Buddha-like older man who has recently broken up with his wife and is genuinely fascinated by “real gays,” and Michel (Christophe Paou), who woos Franck effortlessly as he zips past him in the water one day.
Sound like it’s getting more complicated? That’s because it is, and by the minute.
While the opening sequence is imbued with an anything-goes-here spirit, clues abound that something ominous lurks in the near future. When Franck is swimming, the camera work becomes claustrophobic and choppy. When Michel walks up to a character, his broad shoulders fill the frame until they block out the sun. And when the two follow each other into the woods for a lovemaking session with their backs to us, there is a creeping unease that they are being watched in the act.
Like a good horror flick, the film has a violent inciting event – executed by Michel, and witnessed by Franck – that sets the plot into motion. Any risk that the film could become a French Friday the 13th (1980) is fleeting, however. Pushing boundaries introduced in recent French export Blue is the Warmest Color (La Vie d’Adèle, 2013), Stranger by the Lake leads the audience on a thrilling and exquisite exploration of French queer culture and the modern crime de passion.
Guiraudie, who has come to prominence with No Rest for the Brave (2003) and The King of Escape (2009), is not known for holding back. This venture is no exception. The storyline hinges on a particular kind of sexual partner, what Americans might call a hook up and the French a plan cul.
Their encounters, filmed with unflinching detail, do more than punctuate the film: they help mold its artistic trajectory. Sex’s inborn pleasure/pain dynamic becomes the difference between dark and light, lake and sky, rocks and water, and life and death.
This is where the film finds its great relatability with audiences gay and straight, European and American alike. While certain elements remain remarkably French – nudity isn’t given a second thought, and neither are long sequences of foreplay, fellatio and more – the film’s sharp artistic direction drives the plot in fresh and unexpected ways that cross cultural boundaries.
Everything is amplified: the crunch of gravel beneath Franck’s feet, a swimmer’s treading legs in the water, a chirping insect in the bushes. Certain shots are remarkably impressionistic, paying homage to late nineteenth-century French pioneers like the Lumière Brothers and their “Repas de bébé,” in which viewers were shocked and moved by the swaying leaves in the background.
In many ways it is these leaves and lapping water, simultaneously inviting and uninhabitable, that ultimately make the film’s queer paradise so sinister and baffling. In the final sequence, an almost dream-like chase between jealous lovers with a deadly twist, the question of Franck’s escape remains unanswered. The thick brush and whistling wind have transported him to a Lord of the Flies kind of universe where all control has been lost, and he is no longer sure if he is the pursuer or the pursued.
Stranger by the Lake is not rated and contains violence, graphic nudity and explicit sexual content.