The erotic thriller, with its mix of illicit sex and anxieties about bodily harm, can often come off as rather morally conservative. The femme fatale lures the male character into corporeal sin; the man is punished with existential angst and perhaps some physical injury for his transgression, but escapes with his life—the femme fatale is often not so lucky. Thrillers that are reflexive about and even critical of this genre, such as Body Double (1984) and Basic Instinct (1992), can hardly help but rely on the tropes of anxiety about female sexuality and (hetero)sexual misprudence, even while they mock them.
Director Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake (2013) avoids these potential pitfalls by removing both the women and the heterosexuals from the picture. This by turns slow, sexy, taut and surreal French thriller takes place entirely at a secluded, rocky beach and the surrounding woods of an unspecified lake, where men sunbathe, swim and engage in mostly-casual sex. While the central theme of the story, about the dangerous proximity of death and desire, is not entirely new, the twists of a homosocial/sexual setting and a surreal atmosphere enliven the familiar, generic plot.
Outside of this exceptional space, the identities of these men gathered by the lake remains hidden throughout the course of the film, although Henri (Patrick D’Assumçao), who has recently separated from his female partner, speculates early on in the film that “most” of them date women in their day-to-day life. Henri, one assumes, is projecting just a bit. But his questioning of who these men are and what effect the division between the lake and the “outside world” has, becomes central to the film.
In that scene, the middle-aged Henri is speaking to the film’s main character, the young and athletic Franck (Pierre Delandonchamps), whom he has just befriended. He warns Franck of the 15-foot silurus (a giant species of catfish) that might wound and kill; while Henri’s anxiety about the silurus is ultimately unfounded, he is correct in perceiving danger in the water. Franck soon witnesses a man he is attracted to, Michel (Christophe Paou), drowning his jealous lover in the lake at dusk. Witnessing the murder, oddly, does not deter Franck, who continues to pursue, and quickly wins, Michel’s affection.
Although Franck has witnessed Michel’s crime, he not only has sex with Michel, but also begins to insist that Michel treat him as a boyfriend, confessing to Henri that he is falling in love with Michel. Franck either represses the fact that he may very well end up like Michel’s previous lover, or is excited by it—such particulars of motivation remain largely un-elaborated in the film, as do the characters’ lives outside the beach. Everyone in Stranger by the Lake is just that: a stranger.
This is true even of Franck. While we see him arriving every day—always parking his car in the same spot, as every other man who frequents the lake seems to—we don’t get a good sense of who he is outside of this space. Guiraudie keeps us at a distance, preferring, with the exception of the film’s numerous and intense sex scenes, long shots to close-ups. An eventually habitual sequence of shots has Franck’s car pulling into its spot, followed by a scattershot of alienated gazes meeting Franck at the beach—the other men halfheartedly checking him out in long shot.
Going without a musical score and confining itself to the sights and sounds of a very small and strange area, the film is as much about the particulars (or peculiarities, as it were) of the space as it is about the complexity of desire. Although the film takes place within small confines, the woods and beach retain a surreal mysteriousness. In some of the film’s sudden and often bordering-on-comedic manifestations of unseen observers, it seems at any moment that anyone from a police inspector to a masturbating man might emerge from the foliage around the boundaries of the film frame. There’s something off about this enclave of seemingly normal individuals.
This is in part why, in the end, the film doesn’t seem to be idealizing the sexless and safe relationship between Henri and Franck. The problem isn’t necessarily casual sex or even the carelessness Franck displays toward his own well-being, and Michel, in part for obvious reasons, isn’t a femme fatale. In Stranger by the Lake, it’s not necessarily succumbing to bodily temptation that’s the bad guy—it’s the surreal and repressed way in which these men relate, or are unable to relate, to each other, in the hidden space by the lake.
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Pat Brown teaches and learns Film Studies at the University of Iowa.