A consideration of the politics of gay cruising and the relationship between sex and death in the gay psyche, Stranger By the Lake’s most remarkable quality is that it never comes to easy conclusions. Shot through with unbearable tension even when it’s at its most wildly erotic, director Alain Guiraudie simply and dramatically casts the cruising ground as a space that is both social and emotionally distant, sexually charged but monotonous, as steely and opaque as the water of the lake itself.
Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is a regular visitor, arriving for the first time of the summer. He befriends a pudgy, ostensibly straight man called Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao) who is only there for the view, and goes after a mysterious swimmer, Michel (Christophe Paou), who unfortunately has a possessive boyfriend. Later that night when no one else is around he witnesses the swimmer drowning his boyfriend in the lake. The day after, the swimmer approaches him, and despite what Franck saw the night before, they embark on a wild love affair.
That is the crux of the plot of Stranger by the Lake and also the central idea of the film – it makes explicit the truth that every anonymous sexual encounter is a flirtation with danger. This isn’t a judgement, merely a statement that here sex and death have become so inextricably linked that there’s little to distinguish the two. The film’s most tense moments come from the times in which Franck is torn between his magnetic attraction to Michel and his fear for his life, putting himself increasingly in harm’s way because death is implicitly part of the thrill.
Guiraudie intends to explore the uniqueness of gay attitudes towards sex, and the uniqueness of cruising grounds as a curious mix of public and private space. His camera is at times an impassive observer and at others a voyeur, exploring the space as much as it documents it and capturing the sensation of watching and being watched, to the point that key moments of the film are point-of-view shots. The cinematography by Claire Mathon is absolutely beautiful, shooting her make subjects with a powerful eroticism and the landscape with a cool, undeniably French detachment.
The film doesn’t shy away from the sex, either – in fact, I think it may be the most explicit film I’ve seen outside of porn and Shortbus. These characters relate to each other through their bodies – Franck and Michel have barely spoken a word before Franck has fallen hopelessly in love with him, but they have had fiery, passionate sex. The secondary characters populating the lake only serve to enrich this little world with pinpoint accuracy – the guys who do nothing but stand around jerking off, the guys who get angry at anyone who makes eye contact.
The only true outsider in the film is the inspector investigating the murder, and he is prone to judging where the film does not. The inspector does not understand how this world could be so dispassionate, how the lake could be buzzing again just two days after someone has died. One senses Guiraudie agrees with him to an extent, that the sex of looking for sex has become one of blinkered self-interest – even the friendly conversations that Franck has with Henri are promptly terminated as soon as Michel arrives on the scene. But where as the inspector does little to hide his disgust, Guiraudie accepts this place for what it is. The lake setting is cold and opaque, but it’s also something natural ancient – Henri talks of rumours of a fifteen-foot silurus beneath its surface, an easy metaphor for the primal danger that they all find so alluring.
It’s easy to cast Strangers By the Lake as a parable about post-AIDS gay sex culture, particularly as Franck and Michel don’t use condoms, but Guiraudie’s vision isn’t easily tied to the specifics of that crisis. It’s more about the danger of sex in the abstract, the slippery line between passion and violence, the erotic allure of death itself. Its final sequence is so tense not because of the immediate threat, but because of the way it’s invited in. Franck’s actions shock not because they seem insane, but because they perversely understandable. Stranger by the Lake understands that sometimes one plays with fire because they want to be burned.