Saturday, January 25, 2014

Stranger by the Lake


Grade: 54/C+

Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake is singular, audacious, formally rigorous, and incredibly tedious. This seems like a contradiction, but while the film never hedges its bets, it also never feels like it’s getting at anything new or saying it in a new way, aside from a new level of sexual explicitness. Guiraudie has a strange problem in that his vision is simultaneously bold and distressingly familiar.

The film takes place at a beach popular for nude sunbathing and cruising for gay men. Franck (Pierre de Ladonchamps) goes there regularly, and pays attention to two particular men: Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), a portly man whose wife has just left him and who Franck enjoys talking to, and Michel (Chistophe Paou), to whom Franck is instantly smitten by. Michel soon returns Franck’s interest, but not long after Franck witnesses Michel drown his lover in the lake. He can’t fight off his feelings forever, and the two begin having frequent unprotected sex, but soon an investigator starts to ask questions about the body found in the lake, and Franck begins to fear his newfound friend might learn what he saw.

Many have drawn comparisons between Guiraudie’s film and Alfred Hitchcock. It’s a bizarre comparison, aside from the premise’s fusion of sexual desire and danger. Stranger by the Lake falls much more in line with the current wave of European detached, where the reasons and the rhythms remain deliberately oblique – there’s no pop psychology or sensual, playful style here.

That’s not a criticism, necessarily. For roughly the first forty-five minutes, Stranger by the Lake is a fascinating look at the cruising subculture, told in an austere but not suffocating fashion by Guiraudie. The anonymous, hardcore sex (not an exaggeration – some of this might be simulated, but much of it is not, and it’s pretty close to being gay porn explicit at times) is told with a casual frankness, and the way these no-strings-attached arrangements are juxtaposed with the nature setting is often breathtaking. It all leads up to the murder of Michel’s lover, shot in an extraordinary single long-distance take, in a voyeuristic style that’s less Hitchcock’s horrified helplessness and more a mixture of fear and fascination.

And then the movie gets monotonous. Franck and Michel fuck, an inspector comes by to ask if they’re sure they didn’t know the deceased, and Henri and Franck speak about the dangers of the lake and about their quasi-romantic but not sexual relationship. Rinse, repeat. Guiraudie seems to be shooting for hypnotism, but it’s mostly just repetitive. What’s more, the film’s allegory (cruising with exciting man/unrepentant murderer = AIDS) grows obvious, the thriller material banal, and some of the motives for the characters’ behavior baffling*.

By the end, Guiraudie takes the most groan-inducing elements of both the psychosexual thriller the plot promises and the stiffly aloof aesthetic of the modern art-house. Whether it’s in terms of story or style, Stranger by the Lake stops being surprising, right down to an ambiguous finale that’s frustrated me not because it did the opposite of what I expected, but because it did exactly what I expected.

*NON-SPOILER, really: the film makes the case that sexual desire and actual affection are separate. It’d probably be pretty difficult for me to stay involved after that, given that this idea is totally alien to me, but even if I were willing to roll with it, the film doesn’t really say anything meaningful about it.

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