Christophe Paou and Pierre Deladonchamps play hesitant cruising site lovers in "Stranger by the Lake." Credit: Strand Releasing
'Stranger by the Lake' Director: Alain Guiraudie Stars: Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou Rating: NR 5 (out of 5) Globes
Mainstream screens are becoming less and less uncomfortable with showing gay men. Actual man-on-man sex, for whatever reason, is another issue. Gay men, unlike their female counterparts, can be personalized but rarely sexualized. It’s a safe bet that the French art film “Stranger by the Lake” features more dude banging — and, for that matter, more unclad male members — than nearly any film outside of pornography (which it briefly is, thanks to a couple hardcore moments).
The setting is a cut-off rural lakeside that has become a hopping cruising site. Our strapping youngish hero, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), whiles away summer days stripping down, swimming, making semi-awkward chitchat and nipping away to the woods for what’s usually some disappointing sex with neurotic/weirdo fellow frequenters — that’s if it happens at all.
Despite the specific setting and subject matter, Franck could be anyone fumbling through any dating scene, especially because he does, in fact, want love. After several false starts and wrong turns, he thinks he finds it in Michel (Christophe Paou), whose Tom Selleck mustache evokes a bygone era. Thing is, Franck one night witnessed Michel drowning his former boy toy, a development that doesn’t keep Franck from carrying on a cruising site-only affair.
The first half is content to hang out and observe, with deadpan glee, the sometimes amusing inner workings of this microcosm. (The failed pick-ups are always good for a laugh, while a socially backward masturbating guy makes for a terrific running gag.) The second is eaten up by an investigation into the death, enforced by a comically calm investigator who likes to pop up out of nowhere, arms behind his back, for questioning. Here, the film becomes even more glaringly metaphorical, using a horror/thriller plot to get at something deeper. In addition to making films that faux-casually portray “unusual” and even fluid sexuality, rubbing our faces in it by not making it into a big deal, director Alain Guiraudie (“No Rest for the Brave,” “The King of Escape”) likes to use sexuality as a way to speak about other issues.
Guiraudie isn't the first to explore the similarities between desire and danger. But "Stranger by the Lake" is also about something specific, less trodden-upon. Michel’s secret homicidal leanings, along with his general sense of unease and mystery, stand in for the unknowability of other people, and the fear that comes with early relationships. Franck is attracted to Michel, but he’s both drawn to and afraid of taking their love to a more serious level. Michel’s murderous streak could be replaced by a weird kink or a moderately irksome psychological defect — something that keeps us from wholeheartedly embracing and giving one’s life to another.
Human interaction in “Stranger by the Lake” is fraught with pesky ambiguities. Witness Henri (Patrick d’Assumcao), a portly and by all appearances straight divorcee who hangs by a remote part of the lake, and strikes a platonic (or is it?) conversational relationship with Franck. Everything, from the sex to the relationships to the genre elements, is in a bothersome but no less captivating state of flux.