Mr East Goes To The Movies 2014: Stranger By The Lake

by George_East on May 14, 2014

Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger By The Lake was French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema film of the year in 2013.   The film, set entirely on a nude gay cruising beach adjacent to an idyllic lake, is a psychological thriller, which explores the potentially deadly nature of erotic obsession.

Every afternoon Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) arrives at the beach. We see him walk from the car park through some trees and down on to the pebbly beach.  He will swim and sometimes cruise the woods behind the beach for sexual encounters.    The ritual of his arrival is repeatedly played out by Guiraudie, the car park, the walk, the beach.

At the beach familiar faces are seen.  Eric (Matthieu Vervisch), a voyeur who gets off by masturbating while watching other men make out.  Henri (Patrick d’Assimacao), a married loner who is uncertain about his sexuality, and who sits on his own at the edge of the beach, and who will become a friend of Franck.

Also there is the Tom Selleck-like Michel – a bronzed Adonis like figure who becomes the object of Franck’s obsession.   In an early conversation between Franck and Michel, we learn that Michel has only been coming to the beach for a relatively short period of time.   He had before been frequented another beach he tells Franck – the reasons why he switched beaches are never explained, though as the film goes on the suspicion rises that it was because of something that happened there.

For the viewer the lake and its surrounding area are the entirety of the world we see. It has its own ecology and rules.   Occasionally reference is made by one or other character to the world away from the beach but it is never shown by Guiraudie.      The result is to make the beach and lake increasingly claustrophobic and threatening as the tension ratchets up.

One evening in the twilight of dusk Franck witnesses Michel murdering another man in the lake.  This would be enough to make most people at the very least steer a very wide berth around Michel, even if it did not involve reporting what was seen to the police.    For Franck though his sexual obsession with Michel is such that he continues to pursue him.

We see that Franck is a risk taker so far as his own personal safety is concerned, when he indulges in unprotected sex with some of the men he picks up on the beach.  However, this takes the risk taking to whole new level. We do not know why Michel murders the man but clearly Franck is placing himself in mortal danger by continuing to fuck him.

The death on the beach sees the involvement of the police in the form of an inspector who begins to investigate what happened, Inspecteur Damroder (Jerome Chappette).  Damroder, a skinny beanpole version of Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot, hands clasped behind his back, leaning forward, soon becomes suspicious as to Franck’s story and what he witnessed that night.    All of this will lead to a violent and tragic ending.

Guiraudie’s film is an unsettling exploration of the death wish that can come with sexual obsession.   The sublimation of rationality to id-ic desire at the expense of personal safety maybe within us all if we find ourselves meeting the wrong person at the wrong time.   The use of a beautiful and isolated lake side environment and its gradual switch from expansive idyll (the empty shimmering lake seems to go on forever) to confined place of threat is superbly achieved through the use of repetition of shots, as the reality of Michel becomes clearer.

The primary weakness of the film is Franck, who feels like something of an empty vessel who we never really get to understand.    The supporting players, in particular d’Assimacao’s ever-watchful uncomfortable in his own skin Henri are superb.   As is Michel as the enigmatic object of Franck’s obsession.    Strangers By The Lake is an original and compelling thriller that transcends its potential pigeon-holing as a gay film.


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