If you are uncomfortable with seeing naked men, Stranger by the Lake (L’inconnu du lac) is not for you. Stranger by the Lake might be the first film I've seen that shows you as many penises as faces. Last years much debated Blue is the Warmest Colour seems almost prude in comparison. Alain Guiraudie’s extremely explicit, uncompromising cinematic creation is however much more than a simple sausage fest: it’s a spine-tingling, beautiful thriller which is not only for gay men. The sex scenes have a clear purpose and reveal a lot about the characters. Prestigious French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, hailed it as the best film of 2013 and I can see why.
The film is set around a lake, somewhere in the south of France, which has become a meeting place for gay men to meet up, sunbathe, swim and “cruise” (disappear into the bushes). The entire film takes place in and around this lake, including the bushes. We know that some of the characters meet and talk elsewhere, but we are not privy to those discussions. Even though everything takes place outside, after a while, we feel trapped by this lake, by the bushes and by the nearby parking lot. Making a cinema audience feel claustrophobia is difficult enough, but achieving this by depicting an open space is truly masterful.
Franck is a good looking, young, naive (one might even say reckless) homosexual. He is played by Pierre Deladonchamps who is 35, but could easily pass as being in his early 20s. Since he is unemployed, Franck spends his days at the lake. Here he befriends Henri, a likeable, overweight, middle-aged man who stays away from the others. Meanwhile he develops a crush on a mysterious newcomer with a moustache that would make Burt Reynolds proud. The crush quickly develops into a passionate relationship.
One moment of violence then changes everything. I won’t reveal the details of the event, which is depicted by Guiraudie, through a four-minute unbroken shot. This moment has elicited worthy comparisons with the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock. When, a few days later, a police inspector appears and starts asking questions, we (knowing what happened) start to ask questions of our own: Why did he do it? Why is he lying? Why is he protecting him?
The nature of love, friendship and sex is challenged. The naivety of young love is exposed. We know a lot about the three main characters, but it’s what we don’t know that is most intriguing. We can never fully figure them out. Throughout the film, Stranger by the Lake builds an incredibly creepy and menacing atmosphere. This process is so slow and careful, that it creeps up on you until the tension boils over into a perfectly judged climax (not that kind).
The uncompromising, brave manner, which Alain Guiraudie has chosen to depict the lifestyle of these men, will surely take many people aback. Nevertheless, Stranger by the Lake is one of the most fascinating thrillers in recent memory.