Alain Guiraude’s latest film quietly observes the comings and goings, or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say, the ins and outs, at a sequestered gay cruising spot in rural France.
From the opening shot – a protracted long take displaying a car slowly approaching the lake – it’s clear that Stranger By The Lake isn’t going to be an explosive thriller. The only sound is the soft crunch of tyres against pebbles as the vehicle makes its lazy, stuttering progress to a shady beach. This tone of idyllic somnambulance masterfully sits in contrast to the film’s steadily growing sense of unease. Romantic visions of the beach begin to breakdown with the discovery of a dead body by the shore; an insidious underbelly to the largely anonymous, and frequent un-protected sex occurring throughout the film.
Our protagonist is Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a softly spoken and kind-hearted young chap who finds himself falling in love with another regular by the lake – the elusive Michel (Christophe Paou). In deference to Franck, the calibre of Michel’s moustache is of such a colossal magnitude that it honestly wouldn’t be easy not to develop amorous feelings.
In spite of his facial hair, Michel is emotionally distant and repeatedly rebuffs Franck’s deep yearning for them to socialise together outside of the cruising spot. Tensions between the two mount further when a police detective Inspecteur Damroder (Jérôme Chappatte) intrudes on the previously placid shoreline, interrogating the cruisers with a pernicious eye for detail. Michel and Franck begin to find themselves tangled in a web of half-truths as the detective steadily draws towards the truth.
While the murder investigation and the gay community’s reaction to it is the central device of the storyline, the narrative revolves much more centrifugally around Franck’s relationship with Michel. Guiraude has a unique eye for detail, which reveals itself in the interactions between the two as they swing seemingly imperceptibly from the wildly erotic to the uncomfortably stifled. None of this is necessarily exciting in the conventional sense of a thriller, but it’s certainly compelling.
Of Stranger By The Lake’s many accomplishments, perhaps the most prominent is that the quiet observational moments of mundane and uneventful holiday-going stick in the mind far more than the – extremely explicit – sex scenes. Guiraude captures the sound and aesthetic of a beach holiday with uncanny precision.
The closest the film gets to a soundtrack is the gentle breaking of waves against the shore, the wind brushing through the leaves in the trees and wet feet sloshing around uncomfortably in their beach bound trainers. By saturating the textures of the film in such nostalgic, familiar and romantic tones, Guiraude ingeniously inverts these sensations by situating them within such a murky narrative.
This is cinema that clings to the mind like a limpet. Stranger By The Lake’s exploration of predatory sexual encounters by the lake is genuinely scintillating, the film turning out to be one of the most singularly memorable thrillers in years.
Stranger by the Lake is out in UK cinemas on 21st February, 2014.