Alain Guiraudie’s film, shown in the “Un certain regard” section at the last Cannes Film Festival, is a perfect illustration of why European cinema works while American cinema is drowning in a sea of either loud, big productions wrapped in close-ups of interchangeable actors (Brad Pitt or Leo di Caprio? Nicole Kidman or Jessica Chastain?) and special effects or self-indulgent, quirky indies where one almost hears the whirring of the mind of the director and/or screenwriter (“I’m going to come up with something really, really original.”) Another lesson of “The Stranger by the Lake” is how a slow-paced artistic venture can cause more tension and disquiet than a more conventional thriller without resorting to a single gimmick or foreshadowing.
The film takes place by an idyllic lake where naked gay men check each other out before making out in the nearby woods. Frank, a handsome specimen, finds himself attracted to a 1970s macho type, Michel, who soon returns his affection, sex-wise. Until Frank, himself unseen behind trees, witnesses his lover drowning another man. What follows is the most subtle layering of contradictory feelings—how can I be afraid of him and still want him?—of questioning the nature of desire—do I keep on wanting him because he won’t spend time with me outside these trysts or because I’m afraid of him?— and an investigation of sorts by the local police.
Guiraudie masterfully enhances the tension by never changing the locale (faithful, on purpose or not, to the great dramas of classical French 17th century and its basic principle of unité de temps, de lieu et d’action—unity of time, place and action), the lake with the few naked sunbathers dotting its pebble-strewn shore, the wind shaking branches the only soundtrack (the wind in trees been has never been so present in a movie since Antonioni’s 1966 “Blow Up”).
Caveat emptor, scenes of fellatio, masturbation and copulation are unsimulated. Getting past that initially off-putting aspect—possibly indispensable for understanding the type of relations between the different players—allows for a rather unique cinema experience.