STRANGER BY THE LAKE Review: Lather, Rinse, Repeat
I do not shy away from depictions of sex onscreen. Film is art and art imitates life and life includes sex, so why wouldn’t films include sex? There are instinctive caveats, of course. Are the sex scenes naturally integrated into a fully-developed story? Are the sex scenes contextually important to the film? Are the sex scenes key to character development?
In the case of last year’s Blue Is the Warmest Color, my pick for the best film of 2013 and a film that found itself the center of a controversy for its graphic depiction of sex, the answer is yes to those questions. In a film like this year’s That Awkward Moment, one that languishes nearer to the bottom of my list, a sex scene between a lothario (Zac Efron) and his friend with benefits (Addison Timlin) feels like it was placed there for shock and/or titillation purposes only. The scene wasn’t as graphic as the Blue scenes, but it didn’t need to be; it was simply unnecessary.
Now from France, the country that brought us Blue, comes writer/director Alain Guiraudie‘s thriller Stranger by the Lake (L’inconnu du lac). The film, which takes place in an area where sex is on public display, focuses on a relationship where sex plays an integral part to character and the plot. But even though the sex is tightly woven into the film, is it still too much?
Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is a young Frenchman who spends his summer days sunbathing nude on a rocky beach by a lake, and occasionally swimming there. He is not alone, as other men have taken to doing the same thing. It’s there Franck befriends Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), a middle-aged heterosexual man who is going through a recent breakup, but who likes the gay beach because he can be alone and no one will question him. Through thoughtful conversation, thee two form a strictly platonic relationship.
Not so platonic is the relationship Franck wants with Michel (Christoph Paou), a lithe, handsome man who also sunbathes nude and skinny-dips in the lake. Franck’s initial attempts at wooing Michel are unsuccessful, especially when Michel’s current (and jealous) lover sees the two men talking on the beach. But when Franck secretly witnesses Michel drown that lover in the lake one evening after everyone else has gone, he chooses not to report the incident to authorities but rather pursue – this time successfully – a torrid affair with Michel.
All appears to be going well until a couple of days later, when the dead lover’s body is found and Inspector Damroder (Jérôme Chappette) starts asking questions.
The first half of Stranger by the Lake is superb. Writer/director Guiraudie both lulls us and startles us with his depictions of nature.
He lulls us with the serenity of nature’s environment. The director takes great care in offering lingering shots of the placid lake and the rocky beach in the warm sunshine, along with the shady and peaceful tall grass and woods. There’s even something of a winding path to get to the lake from the parking area, suggesting someplace that offers the utmost privacy.
He startles us, though, with his unflinching depictions of the nude male figure and sex between men. It’s so very important to make clear that it isn’t the nudity or sex themselves that are startling, but rather their depictions on the screen (to a society that consumes mostly American films). And these are not fleeting shots of nude men just passing by or male couples obscured in the shadows. These are men who lay naked in the sun and deliver lines and lines of dialogue. And these are men who sneak off into the woods to share something that is very natural, very visceral. And while the location is presented as a cruising spot for gay men, the beach (meet) and woods (hook up) really are no different than a bar and a motel for heterosexuals on the prowl.
What’s so amazing about the sex is how Guiraudie stages it an frames it and, despite how wanton it is as a collective, how he makes it seem so natural. (Note: Don’t confuse the glow of nature for something PG-13. The sex in this film is quite graphic.)
Then Guiraudie reminds us that all of this beauty comes with a price: nature has a b-side, and the director shows us that darker side with the murder. Shot in very low light and from a good distance, you are almost promoted from viewer to witness when the incident happens. The moment is chilling.
This sets up a delicious conundrum. Here is Franck, head-over-heels for the taken Michel, and the way Michel becomes available is that Michel becomes a murderer. And as soon as that murder occurs, you cannot wait to see what happens next – what kind of internal struggle Franck will face with being hot for a killer; how Michel might learn that his new lover knows the truth, what role Henri will ultimately play, and so on.
But come the second half of the film, that never really happens. Yes, Franck struggles with the conflict between the joy of a budding romance vs. the potential for being a future murder victim. But that struggle is never explored far beyond basic indecision, and Franck’s enchantment with Michel is so blind as to be reminiscent of that of a teenage girl.
And even a lot of that is lost in what becomes an endless repetition of nudity and sex. I’m not going to go so far as to call it pornographic (with a nod to Justice Potter Stewart), but if someone else calls it that, I understand. I reached a point where I asked, out loud and to no one because I was watching this alone, “To what end?” Again, onscreen sex doesn’t offend me in the least, but senseless onscreen repetition of anything – sex, language (see Django Unchained), violence, whatever – grows tiresome and does so quickly.
Making the latter half even more frustrating is that for as endless as it all seems, and for as uncreative as the movie-of-the-week climax (sorry) is, the final scene is diabolically haunting. If only the 45 minutes before it were the same.
One person finding themselves in love with a murderer is as old as moviemaking itself, but with Stranger by the Lake, Guiraudie finds a new and captivating way to present that tale. By the end of the first half, I found myself wanting more. Unfortunately, the second half taught me to be careful what I wish for.