When L'Inconnu du lac (Stranger By the Lake) is right, it’s so right that it’s horrifying.
Warning: Spoilers below. Also below are descriptions of anonymous public gay sex, but you’re probably used to that by now.
Alain Guiraudie’s film, which won Guiraudie the Best Director honor at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and is currently playing the New York Film Festival, explores the way that the pursuit of pleasure can lead to self-abuse (both in the literal and masturbatory sense of the phrase). It takes place solely at a lake in France, where men sunbathe (often nude) on the stony shore and fuck in the connecting forest. Though seemingly set in present day (we see many shots of modern automobiles), this is the land that Grindr forgot—the woods-and-water location combined with the ‘70s leanness of its principal characters’ bodies plays like an homage to the Fire Island-set 1971 gay hardcore classic Boys in the Sand. The object of protagonist Franck’s affection, Michel, is a ringer from Tom Selleck in the way that so many men of the gay-macho era look like ringers of Selleck in retrospect. His pornstache is just perfect.
Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is not just the good guy, but a good guy, who fosters a sense of community with a platonic friendliness that rubs some people the wrong way and inadvertently leads others to think he's interested in them. He's a regular who's enjoyed the area in the past. He seemingly has no job and is able to cruise the lake everyday for hours a day, notices Michel (Christophe Paou) early on, but Michel is otherwise attached and seemingly uninterested in a forest threeway. Before they can fuck, Franck watches Michel drown his lover from afar. This does nothing to deter Franck. If anything, it creates an in for him.
I related to this so hard. I’ve never been so close to a murder (to my knowledge), but I’ve gone for someone who is so clearly the wrong guy too many times to count. I’ve announced myself as such, too—from time to time I have so many balls in the air (again, literally and metaphorically) and too little self-control that I figure if I can describe the interpersonal messiness of my situation, I’ll scare a new guy away and save both of us the complications. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t, and in the latter case I wonder who’s more fucked up.
It's not always this way. Most of the time hooking up is fun, easy, and inconsequential as a first-time conversation at a party. However, it can feel really fucking twisted when something meant to be positive – something as simple and natural as enjoying another person’s body on yours – turns negative. When you’re living a single, sexually active lifestyle, you’re putting a piece of your confidence, a piece of your happiness, a piece of your life in a stranger’s hands. That stranger might be shitty and selfish, because people are shitty and selfish a lot of the time, especially when they have no real debt or obligation to you to keep them in line. You have to use your brain, and that isn’t always easy when you can stumble into sex by just walking a few feet. Knowing better and doing better are sometimes mutually exclusive.
Franck seems to think with his dick, but then it turns out that he’s using his heart. That's even worse. He confesses to an older, overweight man named Henri (Patrick d'Assumçao) that he thinks he’s falling in love with Michel just days after he and Michel fuck for the first time. Henri has too much self-loathing and shame to admit why he’s drawn to a gay cruising ground, but his remove also gives him insight into Franck’s folly regardless of Michel’s murderous nature. Michel, who states a need for "discretion" and in doing so alludes to his own shame struggle, wants to keep Franck at a distance by confining their sex only to the cruising area—no dinner, no sleeping in bed together. Henri points out how ultimately unsatisfying this will be, offering Franck the alternative of his own (sexless) companionship. But that’s no fun, and Franck is too deep in love (or lust so deep it feels like love) to care. Michel is not just a threat as a character, but a symbol of the general risk of sex—from a health perspective, and also in terms of the general vulnerability one adopts by losing himself in a moment with someone that he doesn’t know.
It takes an outsider to spell out the extent of Franck’s fucked up situation. After Michel’s lover’s body surfaces, Inspector Damroder starts poking around the lake, searching for clues. He’s ostensibly straight and initially ignorant of the cruising culture, marveling at the one-off nature of these hookups and their anonymity (it isn’t until about midway through the movie that we learn Franck’s name, despite him being in virtually every shot). As the investigation intensifies and it’s clear that Franck was at the lake at the time of the murder and that his supposed alibi of an anonymous trick just isn’t cutting it, Damroder critiques the culture, noting that “one of your own kind” disappeared and no one was much concerned—after about a day of sparseness following the body’s emergence, the cruising spot filled right back up. “You guys have a strange way of loving each other sometimes,” the investigator notes.
He’s right. Some of us do, and the great paradox of promiscuity is that connecting on a sexual level often makes people feel like they have a license to bypass connecting on a human level. Guiraudie makes sure that you understand just how seductive and distracting the culture can be. He shows you why the risks discussed in the film seem worth taking over and over and over. Stranger By the Lake is gorgeous looking, an endless marvel of shocking-green plant life and water that seems infinite and sparkles like diamonds. It is also sexually intense, a parade of flesh on various body types. The sex is explicit, at times pornographic (there’s a cutaway to an cum shot during a hookup, as well as about 10 seconds of an actual blowjob). I appreciated how matter-of-fact it was about flipping (that is, both men taking turns anally penetrating each other in a single session) and that so many hookups end with one jerking off while making out with the other. Stranger's frankness, its de-romanticized portrayal of sex, is a rare thing not just in gay cinema, but all cinema.
I discussed Stranger with a friend, who's also gay but enjoyed the movie far less than I did. He thought that the characters' self-loathing was backward and that the film was needlessly bleak. I think this is a fair interpretation. Stranger is another tragic gay film, but it's not only tragedy. It's also a movie about naive hope. It's a movie about how complicated even the most seemingly straightforward social interaction can be. The movie questions a certain, promiscuous facet of gay culture, but it also celebrates it. The allure is just as important as the downfall.