Allow me to interrupt my coverage of Looking for a review of my first 2014 film, which is coincidentally (or not coincidentally) also about men cruising for sex. Stranger By The Lake is a French production, by which I mean it is in French and takes place in France, and also that there are penises everywhere. I swear, no matter how attracted you are to the male anatomy, you will grow tired of penises by the end of this movie. The leads spend at least half of the movie fully naked, and the extras are pretty much all naked all the time. That’s because Stranger By The Lake takes place entirely at said lake, which is unofficially a nudist beach and cruising spot, with lots of dirty deeds going down in the nearby woods.
Which you’d think would be a total boner-killer in such a place. But as it turns out in Stranger By The Lake? Not so much.
Stranger By The Lake follows Franck, an attractive Frenchie who spends the entirety of his summers, it seems, trolling for anonymous sexual partners in this location. I recently criticized Looking for being a bit too stuck in the past when it comes to sex; it’s unclear exactly when Stranger By The Lake is meant to take place, since no one ever uses a cell phone (let alone Grindr), but it feels similarly antiquated. I have no doubt that such places still exist, and that men are still cruising in them like it’s 1983 all over again, but in Stranger By The Lake it seems this is the only place men can go for such kicks. Stranger still, it’s pretty much the same men, day after day, with little variation. Why is this so appealing to Franck, and his oft-nude cohorts? Don’t these people have anywhere else to be?
Though it’s not immediately obvious, Stranger By The Lake only makes sense as a critique of cruising culture. Fairly early in the film, Franck witnesses a murder in the lake, committed by the handsome mustached man he’s been unsuccessfully pursuing all summer. (Who actually looks a lot like Dom from Looking.) What’s Franck to do? A) Yell for him to stop? B) Rush home and call the police? C) Stay away from the lake for the rest of the summer? Or D) Return to the lake and immediately strike up a torrid affair with this known sociopath? If you answered D, then this just might be the erotic thriller for you.
In Stranger By The Lake, two men compete for Franck’s attention in very different ways. The first is Michel (Christophe Paou), who is perfectly dashing until Franck catches him pushing his lover’s head underwater. The other is Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), a mostly hetero logger and loner who comes to the beach to reminisce about his ex-girlfriend. (He admits to hooking up with guys in group settings before, though — because hey! It’s France!) There’s no sexual attraction between Franck and Henri, though the men are inexplicably drawn to each other in a way that transcends traditional male friendship. (Henri suggests that he and Franck try sleeping together in a non-sexual capacity.) While most of Franck’s encounters by the lake are fleeting and meaningless, his dynamic with Henri is an unusual but intriguing variation — Henri is so lonely that he comes to a spot where gay men cruise for sex merely because it’s the only place he knows where it’s socially acceptable to talk to strangers.
Less convincing is Franck’s quickly-evolving romance with Michel, who, again, has already demonstrated his homicidal tendencies (though Michele doesn’t know Franck saw him). Franck professes his love faster than Romeo and Juliet and the two become strangely inseparable by the lake, though Michel refuses to take the relationship outside of this hallowed territory. The murder, shot in an arresting long take from a far distance, representing Franck’s point of view, is a rather shocking interruption of the previously idyllic setting, and afterward the lake and the naked men surrounding it take on a more menacing role. Briefly. But then Franck decides to carry on with his intended summer lovin’ now that Michel’s other lover is out of the way, which involves plenty of skinny-dipping, unprotected sex, and leading inquiries about who was where the night of the drowning.
After the body is discovered (off-screen, unfortunately) washed up on the beach, it doesn’t take long for the police — namely, Inspecteur Damroder (Jérôme Chappatte)— to poke around, assuming for some reason that this is no accidental drowning. (They don’t have a whole lot of evidence saying otherwise, though.) Damroder questions the men frankly about their mating habits, forcing some to examine their behavior a little more closely. (Franck insists he’s not a “regular” at the lake, though he spends seemingly all day every day there.) Franck of course does not mention to the inspector that he witnessed his new boyfriend drowning a man, but Franck and Michel become the inspector’s primary targets anyway, while Henri goes a step further and tells Franck he should be afraid of his new paramour.
So what — is Franck an idiot? On the one hand, yes. He has exceedingly terrible taste in men. It seems unlikely that any rational human being would behave in this way, so we must find a different way to perceive this film. A scene late in the film finds the inspector questioning Franck about the callousness of their love-making — rarely exchanging names, feeling nothing for one another. How can one of their own die, and still these gay men feel nothing, but go back to business (fucking) as usual?
And that’s where Stranger By The Lake gets interesting, as an extended (if rather flawed) metaphor for casual sexual. Franck displays no remorse for the death of Michel’s former lover, and Michel is even more unfeeling. He dives into their affair head-first, proclaiming his love and practically begging Michel to let him sleep over. Is this love? How can it be? Franck knows Michel is a dangerous man, perhaps dangerous enough to kill him. Few men would engage in a tryst with a man they knew was a killer, but many men have engaged in trysts with men who could kill them in another way. Stranger By The Lake may not be a perfect allegory for the AIDS epidemic, but it’s no accident that Franck recklessly chooses unprotected sex with strangers on multiple occasions. A lot of gay men are hooking up with men who could kill them; sex with a stranger is always a risk, one way or another.
Given that reading, Stranger By The Lake is a credible critique of reckless promiscuity (even if the whole park cruising culture seems largely obsolete, at least in America). However, as a story on its own terms, Stranger By The Lake doesn’t exactly hold water. (Pun intended!) It’s too hard to buy Franck’s actions when he is otherwise a reasonable, rational character — does he have a death wish? Is he filled with self-loathing? We learn so little about his inner life that his external actions are inexplicable. Michel is a good-looking guy, but he’s not all that charming. In fact, he’s pretty creepy.
It should be obvious to Franck how his dalliance with Michel will end — and it’s very hard to feel sorry for him when it goes exactly that way. The motivations of the core trio fall apart uniformly by the end, though the final scenes are suspenseful in their own right. It’s too bad there wasn’t a little more character development in the interim; since both we and Franck know of Michel’s crime so early on, we spend a lot of time waiting for everyone else to catch up to what our protagonist already knows. We have a pretty good sense of where this is all headed.
Still, Stranger By The Lake at least takes risks and offers something besides the typical gay romance — and I’m not just talking about all the testicles. Seriously, this film may win some award for most cinematic nudity, which includes some very graphic sex scenes. (Most of it isn’t particularly arousing, however. You grow numb to it after a while.) Writer/director Alain Guiraudie has certainly crafted a very distinct gay film, if not an entirely cohesive one. All in all, you’ll likely walk away from it feeling pretty pleased with your own poor choices in the romance department, at least.