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With: Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou, Patrick d'Assum¨ao, Jˇr™me Chappatte Written by Alain Guiraudie
Written by: Alain Guiraudie
Directed by: Alain Guiraudie
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 101
Date: 01/24/2014
IMDB

Stranger by the Lake (2013)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Cruise and Snooze

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I always pay attention to the year-end top ten lists of Cahiers du Cinema, and at the end of 2013, the magazine selected a film by a filmmaker I had never heard of, Alain Guiraudie's Stranger by the Lake, as the year's best. It's an interesting choice, and could be one of the best gay movies ever made, even if it's not exactly a positive representation of the gay community.

It takes place entirely at a lake during the summer. No women are seen; it's exclusively a cruising spot for men looking for sex. The men must wear shoes or sandals to crunch down to the water on white gravel, and there's a woods nearby for sex or for voyeurism. (There's a copious amount of male nudity and graphic male sex.)

Our main character is Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a trim, young man who comes to the lake every day -- and we see him arriving the same way every day, with the same towel and cutoff shorts -- though he claims he's not a regular.

There, he swims and looks for men. He meets two in particular. The tubby, lonely Henri (Patrick d'Assumçao) apparently just ended a crazy sexual relationship with a woman, but which involved several other lovers, both male and female. Henri is on vacation, and isn't interested in sex or swimming. He just likes sitting by the lake and talking to Franck.

Franck also meets Michel (Christophe Paou), svelte, strong and tan, an excellent swimmer, and with a "Magnum P.I." moustache. Franck is a goner. They begin to wait for each other and make passionate love in the woods. Franck wants to see Michel for dinner, and overnight, but Michel wants to keep it simple.

Then Franck witnesses a murder. I'm not sure how much to give away around this point, or how much has been given away already, so I'll leave it at that. What's supremely odd about this murder is that things return to normal relatively quickly. At first, Franck doesn't want to swim in the lake -- where the body was found -- but gives in shortly thereafter. The men continue to cruise and follow their regular routines.

Their biggest headache is a police detective that shows up and pokes around, asking questions. This character is probably the movie's most problematic element. Played by Jérôme Chappatte, he's thin -- almost frail -- and balding, past middle age. He wears the same purple-ish shirt every day, no uniform, never shows a badge or a gun, and never calls for backup. Yet the movie has no tricks up its sleeve regarding this guy. Even as the movie ends, we're supposed to assume he's a real inspector.

In any case, this character is the only one that wonders what's going on. Why, after the murder, don't the others have any compassion, or if not any compassion, then how about a little basic self-preservation? Franck says that he has to "keep on living," but the movie is really about desire. Desire has a strong pull, but an equally strong ending, once fulfilled. Franck winds up literally between Henri, who wants only companionship and conversation (no sex), and Michel, who has nothing but a raw sexual appeal.

Guiraudie's choice for the setting is inspired, given the white, dusty gravel around the lake, and the lake itself... water being a potent symbol for sex and death. Also, the characters frequently talk about giant catfish -- or silurids -- that apparently live in the lake, and can devour a man when in the mood. The weirdly quiet and calming, but painful and deadly physical environment perfectly encapsulates the movie's various themes.

Stranger by the Lake ends the way it plays... it doesn't get particularly heated or hit any crescendos. Desire has been mostly fulfilled, and has given way to something else. And it may be too late.

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