Some critics have compared Alain Guiraudie’s “Stranger by the Lake” to the works of Alfred Hitchcock. I don’t know about the Hitch but there’s plenty of the rest in evidence, the French being less prudish than Americans.
It’s the beginning of the summer season at a gay cruising spot, a rocky beach between a scenic lake and a wooded area that affords minimal privacy.
On his first visit this year Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) strikes up a platonic friendship with Henri (Patrick D’Assumçao), a middle-aged man who’s unattractive, mostly straight, and says he enjoys the gay beach for the peace and quiet it affords.
To save you running to the dictionary afterward, as I had to do, silurus is a large, predatory catfish found in Asia and Europe. It’s discussed as if it were an almost mythical sea monster some people are afraid of, which becomes ironic when the real killer in the water proves to be human.
Soon Franck has fallen in lust with Michel (Christophe Paou), who is more attractive but―the ’80s called, they want their mustache back. When Franck finds him in the woods Michel is―er, occupied―but they make eye contact that says they’ll meet again.
Before they do, Franck hangs around until twilight and observes Michel drowning another man in the lake. That would discourage most of us from pursuing a relationship, but not Franck. He comes back the next day, finally hooks up with Michel, and is ready to load the U-Haul faster than the old lesbian stereotype.
Michel, however, wants to confine their relationship to the woods. “I have my life,” he says. “We can have great sex without eating or sleeping together.”
Franck declares his love for the man he knows is a murderer, but the actor’s inexpressive face doesn’t offer much in the way of explanation. Is it true love or just lust on Franck’s part? Is he turned on by the element of danger or simply willing to overlook it? You may think you would make different choices, but pray you never have to find out if you’re right.
It couldn’t have been easy for the writer-director to find non-porn actors willing to participate in so many intimate scenes, gay or straight, even with body doubles being used for the startling “money shot” that assures you Disney had nothing to do with this movie. That put more pressure on Guiraudie to spell out in the script what his performers are unable to convey silently, but he hasn’t done it.
He’s done a fine job on other aspects, slowly establishing the location and rituals of the cruising area and the touching if not entirely believable friendship that develops between Franck and Henri.
After the body of Michel’s victim is discovered a police detective takes up residence at the lake, questioning the regulars for clues to whether the death was accidental or, if not, who was involved in it.
The relationship between Franck and Michel becomes somewhat strained, with Franck probing more deeply than the inspector to get Michel to confide in him, and the homme fatale trying to find out how much Franck knows.
This naturally leads to some suspense, as Franck’s potentially fatal attraction to Michel leads him into a virtual recreation of the murder scene. There’s probably no possible conclusion that would satisfy all viewers, but Guiraudie has come up with one that’s guaranteed to please no one.
Despite its flaws “Stranger by the Lake” offers much to appreciate in the way of sex and suspense, until the ending ruins it. I mean, the passengers on the Titanic enjoyed most of their cruise too.
‘Stranger by the Lake’
Opens Friday, March 14
Landmark Midtown Art Cinemas