By Jonathan Romney
With Stranger by the Lake, Alain Guiraudie’s fantastic explorations of desire without limits go dark
When Alain Guiraudie won the Queer Palm in Cannes last year for Stranger by the Lake—a drama of love and death set at a rural cruising spot—the French director expressed reservations about the award, or at least its name. “I have trouble with the word ‘queer,’” he told Les Inrocktuptibles. “It means ‘strange,’ ‘bizarre,’ but I want to move the representation of homosexuality away from strangeness.” As Stranger shows, in Guiraudie’s cinema homosexuality indeed loses its quality of strangeness or exception. Gay sex is not “normalized” in his films in the sense that it loses its expressive or subversive force; it simply becomes one dominant possibility, one perpetually available type of desire in a universe of absolute polymorphousness. In that universe it’s not just sexuality that is protean and multiple, but everything—time, space, identity, narrative itself.
Stranger by the Lake
The most acclaimed of Guiraudie’s films to date, and the one that most directly concerns gay sexuality, Stranger by the Lake is set over 10 days at a secluded nature spot where men sunbathe, swim, and enjoy somewhat explicitly depicted sex. The film’s protagonist, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), falls head over heels for the athletic, mustachioed Mark Spitz look-alike Michel (Christophe Paou), only to witness him in the act of drowning a lover. But Franck also bonds with Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), a portly middle-aged loner of uncertain sexuality, who claims to just enjoy the lakeside calm. The name of the film leaves us wondering: is the titular stranger Michel or Henri? But in the French title L’Inconnu du lac, “l’inconnu” can also mean “the unknown”—the elusive factor that the cruisers seek, whether it’s sex, danger, or something more nebulous.
Eerie and troubling as Stranger is, it finds Guiraudie moving away from the willful eccentricity of much of his previous work. The film, his first to receive a U.S. release, represents a fascinating new development from a very individual figure in French cinema—a professed militant and member of France’s Communist Party, an eclectic cinephile whose influences include Straub-Huillet, Samuel Fuller, and Tintin comics, and a director who, over some 20 years, has created an imaginative universe entirely his own.
That Old Dream That Moves
Most of us first encountered Guiraudie in 2001 when his 51-minute That Old Dream That Moves (aka Real Cool Time) played in the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes and was hailed by Jean-Luc Godard as the film of the festival. With its industrial setting, you could just about read That Old Dream as a social drama, albeit a somewhat stylized one. Now, with the release of Stranger—the only other Guiraudie film you could remotely think of as inhabiting the known world—you can see distinct parallels between the two works.
Stranger by the Lake has generally been received as Guiraudie’s most “mature” film, and certainly, like That Old Dream, it sees him in overtly serious mode, while his others are more or less surreal and defiantly frivolous. But frivolity can be as serious a provocation as any. Borrowing elements of genre cinema (costume drama, Western, thriller) in a joyfully cavalier way, Guiraudie’s earlier films are set in variably coherent alternative worlds that mirror contemporary France but have their own parallel social structures, linguistic codes, and sexual mores. He casts largely unfamiliar actors who are manifestly play-acting, wearing their personas like fancy dress, rather than incarnating three-dimensional “characters.” His films make powerful use of the landscape of his home terrain, the Aveyron and Tarn province in southwest France, and they play outrageously with language, deliberately provoking incomprehension with wordplay, bizarre neologisms, and exotic character names.
Stranger by the Lake
Stranger by the Lake is a significant departure because it’s the film in which Guiraudie most entrusts his visuals—landscape, the actors’ gestures, their naked or half-dressed bodies—with the communicative work that spoken language performs, sometimes to excess, in his earlier films. His first shorts Heroes Are Immortal (90) and Straight Ahead Until Morning (94), both set in small towns by night, show his interest in juxtaposing image and text, assaulting the viewer with torrents of speech: the first a dialogue between two young men (one played by Guiraudie) who wait night after night for a third to arrive, the other the monologue of a watchman caught up in the repetitive, futile pursuit of a wall painter.
The third short, Force of Circumstance (98), perhaps his weakest film, inaugurates Guiraudie’s mock-heroic trilogy. The setting of all three films is a quasi-medieval world in which itinerant warriors pursue bandits and attempt to free abducted damsels. This world has its own codes of honor and commerce, and its own bizarre terminology, with echoes of the wordplay of novelist-poet Raymond Queneau. Characters have elaborate names that clutter up the dialogue—“Pool Oxanosas Dai,” “Manjas Kebir,” “Rimbamba Stomadis Boca.” We could be watching a no-budget art-school pageant of Game of Thrones; it’s all done as self-conscious masquerade, especially Force of Circumstance, in which Guiraudie’s own costume design includes a red bowler hat and pantomime pirate drag. But the routine evolves into something genuinely fascinating in the 55-minute Sunshine for the Scoundrels (01).
Sunshine for Scoundrels
Set at once on the real-life plain of the Causses and in the imaginary domain of “Menoas-Kolar,” Sunshine follows hairdresser Nathalie (Isabelle Girardet) as she ventures forth in search of the shepherds who tend flocks of ounayes, an apocryphal, never-seen creature with a lethal bite. She meets an elderly shepherd and together they explore a heath-like landscape without roads or indeed any kind of mappable geography. Playing like a minimalist Alice in Wonderland, this is the first film in which Guiraudie gives free rein to the lawless vagaries of desire. French cinema is notorious for routinely pairing off young women with grizzled older men, but in Guiraudie’s films, that practice is absorbed into a larger code of unpoliced desire—with Nathalie fulfilling a fantasy by sleeping outdoors with the bulky, gray-bearded shepherd. In these films, older, seriously fleshy men become privileged erotic objects in a free-for-all in which all sexual activity is equally permitted and equally fun (although so far in Guiraudie’s work, lesbian desire seems to be a blind spot).
Time Has Come (05) is less a sequel to Sunshine than a feature-length expansion. Here the war games become overtly political (a subplot involves a militant revolutionary plan to liberate the ounaye shepherds) and the anachronisms are pushed further: this world, part medieval Provence, part Wild West, contains bankers in wing collars and a character explicitly quoting JFK. Guiraudie takes his invented worlds seriously, but also makes us aware that they are provisional, willed into being by linguistic and cinematic play, and by their striking locations (photographed by frequent collaborator Antoine Héberlé, Time Has Come features some of Guiraudie’s most atmospheric night sequences).
No Rest for the Brave
Guiraudie’s fantasies begin from the premise that the concrete world isn’t a prison for the imagination: the world can be as strange as we want it to be. He’s a kindred spirit to New Wave veteran Luc Moullet, who similarly whips up wild comedy from his own stomping ground of Alpes-Haute-Provence, and Eugène Green in The Living World, in which actors in jeans are medieval knights simply because they tell us they are. Just how simple it is to create an autonomous fantasy world, while showing little that’s overtly bizarre, is shown in the opening of Guiraudie’s No Rest for the Brave (03). Two young men sit in a bar while one, the oddly named Basile Matin, tells of his domination by Faftao-Laoupo, a malign entity who rules over the domain of sleep. This is all it takes to set up the logic of a narrative that genuinely captures the slippery texture of dreams: characters are killed, return to life, change names; stories abruptly morph into other stories. Set in a landscape in which francophone road signs punningly point to international locations (Oncongue, Riaux de Jannerot, Glasgaud), the story kicks off with a massacre, follows Basile’s alter ego Hector (both played by Thomas Suire) in his dream-world attempts to fly a plane, then introduces some gangsters who are about as real as those in Godard’s Made in USA. Guiraudie’s most overtly zany feature, No Rest for the Brave is also his patchiest and most self-indulgent. The film truly comes alive when depicting community—when the characters get together in bars to play pool, have impromptu sex, or perform a free-for-all jam of “Pretty Vacant.” No Rest for the Brave has the raucous atmosphere of a hallucinatory, come-as-you-are party, although it’s easy to feel that you haven’t specifically been invited.
The King of Escape
Guiraudie finds a new coherence in his knockabout comedy The King of Escape (09). The hero, Armand (Ludovic Berthillot), is an obese tractor salesman who gets into deep water when his boss’s teenage daughter Curly (yes, Curly) improbably falls for him and demands he rescue her from her authoritarian dad; it’s another knight errant story, with Curly the princess in the tower. Armand cautiously takes to open-air sex with Curly, although he’s more used to frequenting cruising spots where everyone’s abuzz about the local legend of an elderly man with a prodigious hard-on. It emerges that this venerable stud gets his power from an aphrodisiac truffle that has most of the region’s middle-aged men hooked: all these staid-looking, straight-acting burghers are forever running off to the woods with each other. Also involved is a dour cop who literally polices desire, turning up magically whenever Armand feels a stirring—but who finally climbs into the sack with the other gents. This is Guiraudie’s most purely enjoyable film, a bucolic answer to Joe Orton, and given extra zing by the presence of Hafsia Herzi, the electric young discovery of Abdellatif Kechiche’s The Secret of the Grain, as Curly—the nearest Guiraudie has come to working with a name actor.
Among all these oneiric comedies, That Old Dream That Moves and Stranger by the Lake stand out as an accidental diptych—closer to realism, controlled almost to the point of minimalism, and altogether darker. Both are formally constructed and played out over a series of days, and both take place in enclosed all-male environments where one man is triangulated by two others, a friend and a real or potential lover. That Old Dream is set in a factory about to close, where itinerant technician Jacques (Pierre Louis-Calixte) arrives to dismantle a piece of machinery. It gradually emerges that Jacques has the hots for diffident factory boss Donand, although worker Louis—another rough-hewn older man—warns Jacques that it’ll never happen between them. Jacques replies with lines that could be taken as a motto underlying all Guiraudie’s sexual intrigues: “When I want someone, I want someone—I don’t ask myself whether it’s possible.” He adds, putting a further political slant on things: “If you give up there, you give up everywhere.”
That Old Dream That Moves
The film’s brooding homoeroticism subverts its apparent status as a realistic drama of labor relations. The mise en scène is haunting: vast, empty industrial hangars and theatrically staged scenes like the break-time tableau in which the workers sit relaxing under sunshades. And it’s never clear what the factory produces: at the start, we’re bombarded with invented mock-technical language (for all we know, it makes machines for trapping ounayes). The film is political in its theme of making room for love in the field of work, but it manifestly inhabits a different universe from the French workspace dramas of realists like Laurent Cantet.
Stranger by the Lake could be seen as a variant remake of That Old Dream. Similarly structured in a series of consecutive days, this is another depiction of a self-contained all-male autonomous zone. Among the cruising spot’s regulars (including one played by a naked Guiraudie) are some who seem not to understand the prevailing etiquette, including an importunate masturbating voyeur. But everyone gets a fair shot at pleasure. And the sex appears to be more satisfying than ever in Guiraudie’s films, for the first time happening predominantly among handsome young men with fit bodies (the bulbous d’Assumçao is an almost reassuring presence in this respect), with body doubles enacting blow-jobs and come shots. Guiraudie has painted nothing less than a gay earthly paradise.
Stranger by the Lake
Yet this paradise has its serpent. In an extraordinary four-minute single shot, Franck secretly watches Michel, the man he fancies, drown his lover, then swim back to shore. Franck tells no one what he’s seen, but embarks on a liaison with Michel that seems to offer the hottest sex he’s ever known, despite—or because of—the knowledge that the man of his dreams could easily kill him too.
The conventional answer to the “riddle” of Stranger would be to interpret it as an AIDS parable. But the fact that the film talks explicitly about AIDS at several points makes it clear that Stranger is about more than that. It’s not sex that’s dangerous here so much as love itself—the existential risk of self-loss in surrendering to passion. The magnificently unsettling ending gives us Franck and Michel searching for each other as pitch-black night falls on the lake—the film finally engulfed in its own abyss-like inconnu, the great unknown of Desire, or Death. It makes for a terrifying, tantalizing question mark that leaves you wondering how Guiraudie will maneuver himself out of the darkness, and where his cinema will go next.