Stranger by the Lake (2013) Film Review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, a movie directed by Alain Guiraudie, and starring Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou, Patrick d’Assumçao, Jérôme Chappatte, and Mathieu Vervisch.
Having already played at the Cannes Film Festival last year, where its director, Alain Guiradie, was lauded with the Best Director prize in the “Ún Certain Regarde” category, Stranger by the Lake (L’inconnu du lac) arrives at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah before a wider release this spring. Its frank exploration of sexuality is simultaneously refreshing and explicit and would undoubtedly turn many viewers off.
The French-language film studies a world that seemingly only exists in seclusion. The entirety of the film takes place on a quiet pebble beach that’s become a popular, but serene, cruising spot for adult men of all ages. They come upon the nude beach daily, almost ritually, to take in the sun, the water… and each other. Its atmosphere is casual, but the underlying rules of love and lust allow this space to thrive in an orderly fashion.
The audience follows Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a regular visitor to the beach. He’s young, fit, and desires to cruise. He’s also friendly and strikes up conversation with a newcomer, Henri (Patrick d’Assumcao), a straight man who has only occasionally been with another man in the past. The two converse away from the crowd on the far side of the beach, bonding over their shared longing for closeness. But when the man Franck has had his eye on arrives at the beach, Henri is abandoned as Franck pursues what he is at the beach to attain. Franck soon becomes petrified, however, when he sees his crush, Michel (Christophe Pauo), drown another lover in the lake. Undeterred, Franck pursues Michel and treads the line of a dangerous pursuit of love. When an investigator shows up to question the beachgoers about the dead body, the heightened tension forces the characters to drastic gestures of tragic love.
Foregoing a traditional score, the director instead uses an excellent sound design to instill a disquieting fear in the audience. The wind whistles by, rippling the lake and rustling the leaves, to an unsettling effect. It skillfully contributes to a welcome realism that is accompanied by the film’s hardcore sex scenes. Indeed, the film’s sex scenes and the dialogue that accompanies their aftermath are refreshing in a world where pretense is the norm and our true feelings are hidden for fear of judgment and vulnerability. We are forced to identify with the characters’ passions and to confront our own ideas about what a potential love is worth.
Also brilliantly executed is the use of subtle, but effective, foreshadowing. Dark, foreboding clouds hang over the usually-sunny beach after Michel drowns his lover with seeming detachment while Franck watches on with fearful fascination. Characters continually show up to the beach in the same clothes, highlighting the regularity of it all. Symbolism abides in Henri’s emotional connection with Franck while patiently forgiving his elevated priority for the deep, carnal desires he has for Michel.
The film’s slow, but steady, pace – aided by wonderfully nuanced performances – allows the viewer to keep up with his own emotions as the film progresses, leading to a haunting climax that lingers with the viewer long after the film is over. The film’s dual themes of self-protection and self-sacrifice are brilliantly united in a loose allegory of the AIDS crisis which, according to the director at a post-film Q&A, “…brought love and death together. The desire for love is stronger than the fear of death.” Death may be the cost of love.
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