Stranger by the Lake (L’Inconnu du Lac)

Posted: February 22, 2014 in Drama, French, Thriller
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

ImageBilled as a thriller, I found Stranger by the Lake to be more frustrating than thrilling, though I will admit the film did succeed in conveying an air of mystery. The story begins with the arrival of Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) at an idyllic beach by a lake, populated entirely by gay men. These men sunbathe naked, stroll, cast glances at each other, and occasionally wander off into the neighbouring woods to seek sexual encounters (or to watch them). Franck’s attention is captured by Michel (Christophe Paou), a handsome Tom Selleck lookalike, but he is unable to act on his attraction because Michel already has a partner, Pascal (François-Renaud Labarthe). Therefore, Franck swims a way along the coast where he meets Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), an overweight middle-aged man, with whom he strikes up a non-sexual friendship. Henri is somewhat depressed in the wake of a break-up with his wife and, whilst he does not consider himself gay, reveals that he had previously had an enjoyable relationship with a man.

In the evening, when most people have left the beach, Franck waits behind in the woods where he watches Michel and Pascal out in the lake. There is a lot of splashing and indistinguishable shouting, and eventually Franck sees Michel push Pascal below the water and hold him there. Pascal does not resurface and Michel swims back to the beach, where he gathers up his things and leaves.

The next day Franck joins Michel on the beach. Michel tells him that he and Pascal were never a serious relationship, and that they are no longer together. The two of them go into the woods and make love.

As time passes, Franck continues to talk to Henri each day until the point when Michel arrives. But the day comes when Pascal’s body is washed up further along the shore. Many of the regulars stop coming to the beach, but Franck and Michel continue to meet there despite being questioned at intervals by a police inspector (Jérȏme Chappatte). Initially, Franck does not tell the inspector what he saw but what will happen when his relationship with Michel starts to cool?

Stranger by the Lake is one of those films that seems to be operating at the level of metaphor as much as surface story. The metaphor we are presented with is the nature of risk. We learn that Franck prefers not to use condoms during his sexual encounters and, most obviously, he approaches Michel for a relationship even though he knows him to have killed his previous boyfriend. The two of them continue to use the beach even though this necessarily brings them under suspicion from the police inspector.

However, I felt the film needed both stronger characterisation and a stronger plot to actually make the metaphor work. Franck is the central character, yet we are never given any reason to sympathise or identify with him. This is especially the case when he witnesses Michel murder Pascal. Surely any reasonable person would have reported this to the police, rather than seek a relationship with the killer? Indeed, the one character that I found any sympathy for was Henri, because he is the one person that we actually learn anything about. It is hard to comment on the plot without giving the ending away, but for me the story didn’t go anywhere. Perhaps director Alain Guiraudie aimed to create atmosphere more than story. Perhaps the things I have identified as weaknesses were meant to be some sort of commentary on the practice of cruising for uncomplicated gay sex (a world I know nothing about, but which you presume the director does). For me, though, it was all rather unsatisfactory.

The film is certainly not for the easily shocked, as there is not just a lot of male nudity but also a fair bit of gay sex. Most of this simply involves entwined bodies, but there are a couple of highly explicit moments. Many commentators have praised the film for depicting something that is normally shied away from, and maybe this is part of the reason the film has mostly been favourably reviewed. However, with such a slender plot I did wonder if the director was simply seeking an excuse to present gay sexual activity to a mainstream audience.

Rating: 5/10

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