Right from its first act, “Stranger by the Lake” strikes us with its frank, direct presentation of nudity and sex. While naked male bodies are usual sights as required by its story and background, the movie never pulls its punches in case of sex scenes, and I must tell you that it has many steamy moments in which its gay characters hurl themselves into carnal passion as summer days idly go by at their idyllic cruising spot.
Now you know that it is a queer film, so you are probably not interested in watching it, but “Stranger by the Lake” is a mesmerizing thriller film too good to be missed. While being daring and blatant in the matter of lust and love, the movie grabs and toys you with its sly, sensitive handling of its mood and characters, and then it becomes more gripping as its plot gets thickens with increasing uneasiness below its bright façade.
As its hero looks for another excitement during one sunny summer day, the movie shows us the usual activities around a cruising spot by some rural lake. While the time and location are not specified, we can only infer from dialogues that it is probably around the time when gay people have become more aware of AIDS and other venereal diseases. When Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) and his latest sex partner are about to have an intercourse, their situation becomes a little amusing because it turns out that neither of them has a condom, and Frank has no choice but to go with a safer alternative which is surely less satisfying to him.
As the movie sticks its viewpoint inside this cruising spot with its austere approach exemplified by the absence of music on its soundtrack, we come to know more about many secret things happening everyday around this private place. While naked or half-naked guys are idling around the beach, some of them go swimming in the lake (swimsuit is an option, by the way) or go inside a nearby forest where many men are eagerly looking for any chance of sex. There are always nice spots in the bushes where they can enjoy themselves in private, and we even meet a naughty guy who frequently watches on others in action (do I have to tell you that his right hand is right on his certain male body part?).
And we also get to know a bit about Henri (Patrick D’Assumçao), a plump lumberjack guy who seems to want to spend daytime alone unlike others. Probably because he cannot possibly look attractive compared to those young, good-looking guys on the beach, he just stays on the far corner of the beach as looking around those tranquil sceneries of the lake, and he prefers to be clothed in his casual attire, though he does take off his shirts at times. Out of curiosity, Franck approaches to Henri, and these two different guys quickly become close as having more conversation with each other, but we see nothing getting heated between Franck and Henri, who always looks like musing on something inside his head as fretfully folding his arms.
Anyway, Franck’s attention is currently headed to a hunky guy named Michel (Christophe Paou). When Michel comes out of the lake after his swimming during one scene, the movie makes it pretty clear us that he is no less than an irresistible object of lust to Franck, and his thick mustache a la Tom Selleck certainly adds extra sexiness to his masculine charm which quickly has Franck in thrall.
Franck is discouraged to know that Michel already has a partner, but he still feels attracted to Michel, and then he happens to witness something serious when the day is being over. As the camera calmly observes what is happening on the lake during one voyeuristic longtake shot to be admired for the precision in its visual storytelling, the movie smoothly switches itself to Hitchcockian mode, and it is turned into a tantalizing dance between lust and danger as Franck faces a very uncomfortable situation. He may just look away as gladly getting what he wishes for, but he is constantly reminded of lethal possibility – especially when Inspector Damroder (Jérôme Chappatte) begins to snoop around the cruising spot for any possible clue for his case.
But he cannot possibly say no to what follows after that incident, and the movie maintains its frank attitude toward its carnal business as Franck is helplessly tumbled toward whatever might be waiting for him in the end. While the movie sometimes approaches to the level of hardcore in a couple of shots (of course, body doubles were hired for these shots), the gay sex scenes in the film are shown with a considerable amount of heat and intimacy while imbued with a delicate touch of mystery and lyricism at times, and Pierre Deladonchamps and Christophe Paou are as daring as Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux in Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue is the Warmest Color” (2013), which also drew lots of attention for its no-hold-barred depiction of lesbian sex scenes.
As implied by its title, the movie is influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller masterpiece “Strangers on a Train” (1951), and the director/writer Alain Guiraudie, who received the Directing Prize for this film in the Un Certain Regard category of the Cannes Film Festival in last year, did a masterful job of modulating suspense along his story which literally gets darker in the end. While the lake and its surrounding areas in the film are fabulous to watch for their leisurely beauty which further emphasizes the tension growing around the characters, the movie also shows a sense of humor with its several colorful supporting characters such as that amusing voyeur or Henri, whose feeling toward Franck may be a little more than friendship (It must be mentioned that Patrick D’Assumçao holds his place well in his wry supporting performance).
It goes without saying that “Stranger by the Lake” is something which is not for everyone, but it is an excellent work made with skills and eroticism, and I came to enjoy its mood and story while shocked, amused, and impressed by its honest handling of sexuality. Although its stark, ambiguous finale is a little frustrating to some of you, this finale feels more like an inevitable destination rather than an easy cop-out, and it will probably take you back to that old proverb: Be careful of what you wish for – you may get it.