Stranger by the Lake
Stranger by the Lake

This film screens as part of Reeling: The Chicago LGBT International Film Festival.

Stranger by the Lake, the latest drama from French writer-director Alain Guiraudie, opens with a wide, high-angle shot of a forested parking lot adjacent to an idyllic lakeside. The action is confined to the lake over one sweltering summer, and Guiraudie uses the parking lot throughout the film to note the passing of the season. But as events unfold, the image grows more chilling, less a narrative link than an indicator of dread.

Young, laid-back Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) spends most of his days at the lake, a secluded place frequented by gay men who swim and sunbathe in the nude and duck into the woods for anonymous sex. With graphic intimacy, Guiraudie captures the erotic thrill of cruising, setting it against an incongruous backdrop of sun, sky, and green foliage. Men of all shapes and sizes roam about the space, perusing the surroundings and each other with almost balletic movement. Everything about Stranger by the Lake is downright serene—until it isn’t.

A sense of violence, previously unimaginable amid the rapturous images of sunlit bodies, creeps into the action after Franck witnesses an alluring newcomer, the mustachioed Michel (Christophe Paou), drown a fellow cruiser as the sun sets over the glistening water. Rather than flee and never come back, Franck returns to the lake and strikes up a relationship with Michel, whose lethality turns him on. The sense of danger only heightens the magnetism of their explicit lovemaking, providing a silent commentary on the attractions and the risks of cruising.

As Hitchcock taught us, where there’s sex, death is soon to follow. Guiraudie mines great suspense from the men’s courtship while sustaining the tranquil milieu, something he accomplishes through precise action and scrupulous story construction. Like the parking-lot shot that becomes a visual motif, the lakeside grows more menacing over time, even as it retains its natural beauty. A character unto itself, it becomes Guiraudie’s principal subject, yielding sex in the woods, death in the water, and temporary salvation on the beach. The characters’ actions within these spaces are unequivocal, their lives outside it inconsequential, suggesting a suspended, dreamlike reality.