Sunday, 2 March 2014

Dangerous Liaison: Stranger by the Lake Review

The reception to little-known French filmmaker Alain Guiraudie's Stranger by the Lake has largely fallen into two camps: celebration of its atypically frank and unsensational depiction of homosexuality, and, conversely, criticism for its association of a gay cruising sub-culture with acts of brutal murder. In fact, this minimalist thriller falls somewhere in-between, adopting a refreshingly sober, no-nonsense approach to its exploration of human sexuality in all its contradictions and conflict, without ever completely succeeding in marrying its prevailingly naturalistic style with its moody genre affectations.

 The story is deceptively simple. At a gay nudist beach somewhere in rural France, a young man called Franck spends his summer afternoons swimming in the sapphire-blue lake, sunbathing, and engaging in casual sexual encounters with the other patrons. These liaisons are fleeting, the men involved exchanging very few details about one another, and the only other regular whom Franck has anything approaching a long-term relationship with is Henri, an older man who has taken to visiting the beach and sitting alone since separating from his wife.

  One day, he notices a strikingly handsome new man who calls himself Michel and is something of a Clark Gable lookalike. Franck quickly develops a fascination with him, and one evening after everyone else has left he unintentionally witnesses Michel deliberately drown the man he has been sleeping with, seemingly having tired of his affections. Instead of reporting the apparently psychotic and dangerous Michel to the authorities, Franck embarks on a passionate affair with him, continuing to let his blossoming feelings for the murderer prevent him from blowing the whistle even as a police detective descends upon the community searching for evidence of foul play.

  Any concerns that the film might try to establish a crude and nasty link between the bathers' lifestyle and criminal amorality are quickly dispelled. Despite the movie's setting, Stranger by the Lake is primarily interested in uncomfortable universal truths about the human sexual impulse. Although at first glance the nudist beach appears to be a sort of earthly paradise where individuals can indulge their desires freely and without pain, it soon becomes clear that this garden is just as postlapsarian as everywhere else. Behind the delirious pleasures of the flesh, its residents cannot keep their jealousy, fear, selfishness and grief at bay, and unruly, destructive human emotion constantly threatens to break through the lake's placid surface.

  This theme is brilliantly supported by the sensual cinematography, which captures both the environment's languorous, sun-drunk beauty during the day, when entwined bodies can be glimpsed between the lush vegetation, and its suffocating darkness at night, when it suddenly resembles a sinister hunting ground for the id.

  Disappointingly, however, once Guiraudie has established his self-contained world as a metaphor for our own, he struggles with the question of where to take the story next. In the lead roles, Pierre de Ladonchamps and Christophe Paou do a great job of conveying Franck's almost childlike innocence and Michel's arrogant, worldly charisma, but they are given too little material to make their relationship truly compelling. We are seemingly meant to believe that their relationship has moved beyond sex towards something darker and more complex, but as viewers we rarely see the characters engaged in anything other than lovemaking, and so what is intended to come across as a forceful, fateful attraction starts to risk feeling monotonous instead.  It is also rather unconvincing when the film abandons its insistently unhurried pace in the final act and shifts gears to become a more conventional thriller, complete with a rapidly escalating body count.

  For those interested in seeing a movie committed to exploring uncharted waters within genre cinema, Stranger by the Lake is well worth a dip, but swimmers should be warned that the dive is ultimately somewhat shallower than one might have hoped.