Ever since I started watching Looking, the HBO dramedy about young gay men in San Francisco, I’ve been thinking about this deleted scene from Knocked Up. In it, Jonah Hill takes issue with Brokeback Mountain there’s not enough explicit sexual content (an indicative line is, “What am, six years old? I can’t see a guy getting sucked off by another guy?”). While Looking would frustrate Jonah for the same reason as Brokeback, the French thriller Stranger by the Lake would treat him like an adult – in his own words, that is. It is full of explicit sexual content between men, yet the film is not art house pornography. All the sex has a purpose: the consequences of lust interest writer/director Alain Guiraudie, whose idea of human behavior mirrors Hitchcock.
Guiraudie limits the action to a small area. Stranger by the Lake takes place entirely in the forest/beach around the titular lake, except for a couple scenes where men go swimming. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is a regular at this side of the lake because it’s a popular cruising spot. In the early scenes, Guiraudie establishes the unspoken rules of cruising. We watch Franck as he wanders through the beach and forest, looking for someone to fuck.
Eventually he sits down next to Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), a schlubby loner who’s adamant he’s not gay (he claims he’s there because it’s peaceful). Franck and Henri become friendlier, yet the handsome Michel (Christophe Paou) is the object of his affection. Michel is with another man, which frustrates Franck until he’s at the lake one evening. From a distance he watches Michel drown his lover, then return to shore. The murder is an unbroken take, including the long swim back, which only deepens Franck’s encroaching obsession. He does not take this development to the police, perhaps because it’s a turn-on. Now that he’s unattached, Franck and Michel begin lusty trysts, and Franck feebly attempts to transition from fling toward a real relationship. His efforts are on hold, however, once the police finds the body and a detective (Jérôme Chappatte) starts asking questions.
Given the nonstop nudity and sexual content, it is possible prudish audiences will walk out of Stranger by the Lake. There is on-screen penetration, as well as an ejaculation scene that plainly cannot be fake. Guiraudie’s camerawork is what differentiates one sex scene from another. Some of them are transactional: there’s a moment late in the film where Franck finally lets a desperate cruiser give him a blowjob. Others are more meaningful than that. The sex scenes between Franck and Michel are sensual precisely because of the danger involved. One man is a murderer and the other knows it, which adds a dimension to the sex that’s erotic and sinister. Once Michel pushes away and Franck gets increasingly affectionate, the suspense only deepens (there are echoes of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train here, obviously, as well as Rope). While the initial flashes of nudity are a little shocking, the steady style – full of lengthy static shots – has a way of making this world familiar, even comfortable. With heightened sound design, the lack of music only adds to the immersion.
The two wedges in this community are the two men outside it: Henri and the detective (no one except Franck knows about the murder). Henri makes the other men uncomfortable in a passive way – in a sense, Franck acts like an ambassador – while the detective tries to remain respectful with his soft-spoken interrogations. Franck’s scenes with Henri are strange and tender: in quiet performance, d’Assumçao plainly describes Henri’s feelings, while also suggesting reserves of passion underneath the surface. He’s a good foil for Franck, who’s young, skinny, and relatively inarticulate. More importantly, his presence is what gets us thinking about culpability and tolerance, which are Guiraudie’s central themes.
The cruisers tolerate Henri because he sticks to himself, and they seem ambivalent about the murder at least until the investigation gets more personal. Does Guiraudie think the men are indifferent to straight men, or death? Not at all. Instead, he wants us to think about what can happen when a community thrives through silence, not inclusion. Franck lets Michel get away with murder, for a while anyway, because this is a place where the expectation is that you turn around when you do not belong. This is not an indictment of cruising because Guiraudie is too curious for that. Instead, Stranger by the Lake is about how silence creates a potential for predators. Franck knows Michel is dangerous, and by the end, it’s too late for him to do anything about it. With its devastating final shot, Franck seems as alone as ever, and maybe it dawns on him that unchecked lust has its consequences.