Cannes by Koehler: Stranger by the Lake
Since Alain Guiraudie’s astonishing 2001 mid-length feature debut, That Old Dream That Moves, the French writer-director has represented something special in the always troubled universe of independent European filmmaking. Consistently running against trends, and one of the most distinctive auteurs below age 50 (though he just passed the half-century mark), Guiraudie has been an oddly well-kept secret, except for a passionate cadre of supporters, mostly in France and among influential cinephiles like Viennale director Hans Hurch. (Hurch reminded me yesterday that the Viennale was the first festival to program a Guiraudie survey.)
What was evident with That Old Dream That Moves (about the final days of an factory and the quietly developing relationship between two male workers) and is just as clear in his latest and possibly greatest film, Stranger by the Lake, is Guiraudie’s mastery at constructing a complete movie experience, integrating formal elements with fascinating themes that can drift unexpectedly into the mythic. As brilliantly as any living director I can think of, Guiraudie orchestrates a filmic dance of bodies in fascinating physical settings, coaxing comedy and surrealist strangeness out of seemingly thin air. For many in Cannes this year (particularly North American viewers), Guiraudie, despite actively making films since 1990, has been a discovery—and not a moment too soon.
Even though he’s always been a quintessential voice in queer cinema, Stranger by the Lake (screening in Un Certain Regard) is Guiraudie’s first movie in which he directly explores gay sexuality, and in a fascinating range of permutations, from everyday friendships to risky, “extreme” encounters. He’s inclined to depict groups or communities, as in the antic Du soleil pour les gueux (01) or No Rest for the Brave (03), although the groups in those extremely playful and willfully strange movies are sometimes so fluid and abstracted that they feel ready to vanish altogether. The King of Escape, a gem of the 2009 edition of Directors’ Fortnight, was concerned with the individual, specifically a physically unattractive gay man who has a fling with a woman and who defies every norm of contemporary gay behavior.
The group dynamic returns in Stranger by the Lake, which depicts a gathering of men who flock for sun and sexual fun at a secluded lakeside spot. Like a low-level (and somewhat lower-class) Fire Island assemblage, the men arrive every morning by car, parking in a dirt lot surrounded by trees. Guiraudie and his fine, unshowy cinematographer Claire Mathon repeat a shot of this daily arrival like a motif, shooting from the same vantage point each time. The film is built on such repetitions. The nude, sunbathing men—fat, ripped, and in-between—are often viewed from a point on the lake itself, as if a fish rising to the surface were gazing curiously at this sight on the beach. After sunning, many of the men wander into the adjacent woods, cruising for a partner, drifting in and out of leaf-dappled shadows or around bushes. Here, in this mysterious netherworld, where Guiraudie is most at home as a filmmaker, the possibilities for pleasure, love and danger intersect and overlap; drift itself becomes a means toward finding a connection, no matter how fleeting.
Mood is dominant in Stranger by the Lake, but there’s no sacrifice of character development or a sense of revelation. With The King of Escape and now emphatically with the new film, Guiraudie explores the full human dimensions of characters who are considerably more recognizable than the symbolic beings that travel through previous films like Time Has Come (05) and Du soleil pour les gueux. His central character in Stranger, Franck (Pierre de Ladonchamps), is at the beach to test himself, to see how far he can go in his pursuit of a stud. He’s masculine enough to draw the attention and hail-fellow-well-met camaraderie of portly Henri (an amusing Patrick d’Assumçao), who remains in the closet and claims to want to hang out on this section of the lake because it’s quieter. It’s swarthy Michel (Christophe Paou) who really draws Franck’s attention, but the mutual attraction complicated by several factors, including a few jealous types and, crucially, Franck’s gradual realization that Michel is killing men on the beach near dusk.
The psychological twist is that Franck’s attraction to Michel grows despite—or because of—this clear and present danger. The dwindling daylight as the sun sets becomes a cinematic character in the film’s second half: Michel’s best friend is dusk itself, where his crimes can be shrouded in a space where the lines between day and night, land and water, forest and land are blurred. Guiraudie has always been fascinated by the ways that sharp, bright daylight or night’s all-encompassing darkness affect his characters: the potential lovers in That Old Dream That Moves are never able to fulfill their potential since they always meet and work in daylight, while many characters in Time Has Come feel lost to each other once night settles in.
While it would be easy to read the shadowy allure of Michel as a stand-in for the specter of AIDS, Guiraudie celebrates libertinism and projects no attitude for or against men who use protection. He wants to place lovemaking at the center of the film and not on the periphery, where sex is usually located in even the “sexiest” French movies, and this is why he includes the film’s already notorious money shots. Franck is a young man who will possibly get on with his life and even settle down—although the final shots of the film suggest an uncertain fate—but for now, he achieves his goal of pushing the boundaries of what’s sexually acceptable among gay men in public and seeing how far he can venture himself. The filmmaker and his character are both testing what is acceptable, and Stranger by the Lake is a valuable reminder of what happens when an artist remains true to his own audacious calling.