Thrillers and horror movies have long benefited from their ability to juxtapose sex and death, the mixture of ecstasy and terror creating a bewitching combination. (It’s no coincidence that all those slasher films were populated with buxom beauties.) But the moody French thriller Stranger by the Lake is an especially chilly brew. And borrowing a tenet of horror movies, it’s set in an idyllic spot in the middle of nowhere.
Writer-director Alain Guiraudie takes us to the French countryside, to a lovely beach overlooking a quiet, clear lake that’s a favored summer spot for gay men looking for random, no-strings-attached hookups. The newest visitor is Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a handsome young man who immediately responds to the locale’s natural beauty and available conquests—namely, horny men who have no problem stripping naked while catching some rays. Franck strikes up a friendship with Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), an older, unconfident heavy-set man, but the object of his affection is Michel (Christophe Paou), a mustachioed hunk who frequents the hookup spot as often as Franck does.
Nearby the beach is a secluded forest where those hookups occur—Guiraudie quite graphically shows a few of them—and it’s after one such disappointing outing that Franck happens to observe Michel frolicking in the lake with his boyfriend. No one else is around, and so Franck alone sees what happens next: Michel keeps pulling his lover under the water until, finally, the guy never resurfaces. Calmly, Michel simply swims back to the shore, dries off and drives home.
Stranger by the Lake is about how Franck reacts to this upsetting revelation—or, more specifically, how he doesn’t. Not realizing that Franck saw what he did, Michel begins to court him, and they quickly become a couple. Franck says nothing about the drowning, possibly even more attracted to this man precisely because of the danger he represents.
Guiraudie gives the proceedings an almost clinical detachment, and consequently Stranger by the Lake has an air of Hitchcock to it: Instead of the icy blonde seducing the leading man, it’s a buff, shirtless man doing the wooing. Cannily, even the sex is given a blasé, matter-of-fact treatment. Repeatedly, Guiraudie shows how as Franck enters the beach he’s coldly surveyed by the other men—a piece of meat to be quickly evaluated and then either pursued or rejected as a possible hookup. The film is juiced by its inherent juxtaposition: The beach is so inviting, and yet everyone there is quietly judging everyone else, sex stripped down to its animalistic, biological essence.
That sense of tension permeating Stranger by the Lake’s hookup culture is amplified by the question of just how unhinged the seemingly normal (albeit intense) Michel is. Beneath the character’s good-looking exterior, there seems to be nothing deeper, and Paou is excellent at making it virtually impossible to know what Michel is thinking at any point. The character is the ultimate unattainable beauty, the lover that will drive you wild if he doesn’t kill you first. (And with Michel, we know he’s quite capable of murder.)
But the film’s edginess extends elsewhere. Deladonchamps plays Franck as a rather unremarkable young man, his inability to see that the pining Henri would be a far better match only the most obvious of his many personal flaws. (Franck never seems concerned with reporting Michel’s crime—there’s a moral blankness to Franck that suggests that maybe these two are eerily perfect for one another.) And because Guiraudie sets the entire film at the beach, we don’t get any idea of these characters’ regular lives. Their whole world seems to revolve around this seemingly tranquil lake, where love is hard to come by, meaningful connections even harder, and death unexpectedly lingers in the air.
Eventually, the repercussions of Michel’s actions—and Franck’s inactivity regarding those actions—come to the fore, and Stranger by the Lake reaches a wonderfully Hitchcockian level of precise, sustained suspense. Franck might become the latest victim of his enigmatic lover. But very slyly, Guiraudie argues that even before then, Franck was barely alive, coasting through life and unable to find any sort of passion except through this vacant killer. In a sense, Franck is already dead, just waiting for Michel to finish the job.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Alain Guiraudie
Writer: Alain Guiraudie
Starring: Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou, Patrick d’Assumçao
Release Date: Screening at AFI Fest 2013 in the World Cinema section