2013 was a great year for open, generous filmmaking that explored ordinary humanity with an eye that was critical but unjudgemental, treating its subjects and characters with a care and tenderness that does not preclude putting them through the ringer. Aside from these that follow, honorable mentions must go to Harmony Korine’s State of the Nation address Spring Breakers, the wildly entertaining You’re Next and Much Ado About Nothing, and the sweet-but-not-sickly childhood tale I Wish.
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.
Kelly Reichardt is firmly established as one of the greatest living American directors, and Night Moves is her most accessible, plotted film to date. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard as eco-terrorists who blow up a dam only to discover they may have inadvertently killed a camper downriver in the process, it feels like more things happen in Night Moves than happen in all her previous films put together. Thankfully, though, she has retained the tense quietness that has so wholly defined her style thus far, and Night Moves, for all its relative largeness, remains a haunting experience.
Her two previous films, Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, are to my mind two of the greatest films of the last decade, both of them extremely low on incident but thick with atmosphere, their visual style the equivalent of a Hemingway story in its minimalism. Night Moves is much higher in incident, much of what defines Reichardt’s previous films remains. In particular, her preoccupation with processes and procedure (take a look at Wendy’s obsessive documenting of every cent she spends, or the focus on repairing a wagon wheel in Meek’s Cutoff) is still here in spades – the physical processes of preparing to blow up a dam are nicely paired with the similar procedures of the small farm on which Jesse Eisenberg’s Josh lives. Fanning and Eisenberg do a great job with the internalised emotions that define her work too, Fanning in particular giving a subtle but extremely physical performance. And Reichardt’s ability to conjure a striking image from nowhere hasn’t diminished one bit either – she can still make a pair of headlights in a rear view mirror look like a great monster stalking its prey and a library floor look like a barren wasteland.
It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what it is about Night Moves that doesn’t quite work. Perhaps its because this is her most populated film to date. Set in a small Oregon town, there are more minor characters and places than in any of her previous films, most of which only have a handful of characters in them, and the increased dialogue and interactions gives the film a busy-ness that her other films lack. It’s never clear what point Reichardt is trying to make here, either – where Wendy and Lucy was a cry for those being lost to the recession and Meek’s Cutoff was a parable on America’s colonial invaders and their treatment of its native people, it’s unclear what this film is trying to say, beyond possibly “the environment is a thing we should care about but maybe let’s not blow up a dam”.
It’s not that the film particularly needs to say something – it seems wrong to criticise a four-star film for not being a five-star one, and Night Moves is, at its highest points, a gripping thriller and a probing examination of guilt. Reichardt’s controlled-yet-soulful aesthetic still has tremendous power, but in taking on a more complicated story it feels as though some raw energy has been lost.
Around the turn of the century, Lukas Moodysson made two films, Show Me Love (Fucking Åmål) and Together (Tillsammans) that announced the arrival of a distinctive talent in Scandinavian cinema. Even-handed, open-hearted, deeply sympathetic, and with a detailed, rich attention to character, these films (Together in particular) are most than just the sweet little films that they appear – their power to warm the heart is almost unrivalled, and they do so without any easy sentimentality. So it was a shame when Moodysson has spent the last decade plus making one empty, pretentious provocation after another, beginning with the relentlessly bleak Lilya 4-Ever, and reaching a nadir with the intolerable A Hole in My Heart, to the point that I didn’t bother with his next films, Container and Mammoth. It seemed almost as if he was trying to swear off his previous work that I had found so special.
The most daring, experimental work to come out of British cinema for quite some time, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is concerned with viewing the world through an alien lens, examining humanity from a distance that makes it seem strange and unknown. The story of an alien sent to earth to seduce and destroy men, any description of its premise is laughable in the face of the resulting film – abstract, sinister, largely wordless, and balancing scenes that have a realistic, almost kitchen-sink feel with ones that are hugely stylised and cinematic, it is a grand statement on what it means to be a human being. It’s the story not of an alien seductress, but of a being that goes from looking like a person to feeling like one.
I for one have not given up on the found-footage horror subgenre, and sxtape, whilst being far from a perfect film, is a plain-as-day example of how a supposedly stale genre can still turn up surprises. For all its flaws, it is a dirty, nasty little horror film that draws some very unsettling images from its POV conceit, and its climax admirably blasts through the subgenre’s limitations to conjure up some truly surreal images.
Computer Chess is an entirely unique, completely unexpected film, and whilst I’m super happy you’re here, I would strongly urge you to watch it before reading any further so as not to spoil any of its surprises!
Andrew Bujalski is, to the few people who actually have heard of him, famous for his mostly improvised, painfully realistic, artlessly artless depictions of the lives of young hip people as they go through perfectly ordinary, life-sized problems – his first film, Funny Ha-Ha, was one of the very first films of the “mumblecore” movement and went a long way to legitimise that style of filmmaking as something that could express the kinds of stories they were telling in a new way. He and his peers, filmmakers that have gone on to make films on a much larger budget like Joe Swanberg, the Duplass Brothers and Lynn Shelton, found a form that perfectly expressed the lives in which they lived: shaggy, low-budget, and with meandering, barely-there focus. Not all mumblecore films worked, but all of Bujalski’s films did, due to his superior understanding of his characters and their interpersonal relationships which kept you invested even when the conversations were mundane due to the sheer recognizability of the types of people he wrote about.