There is no getting around the prurient interest that STRANGER BY THE LAKE evokes. Set entirely on the rocky shore of the titular lake, it teems with beautiful young men madly in lust both with each other and with being in a state of nature. It is the stuff of porn flicks and of classical Greek sculpture, and it is to Alain Guiraudie’s credit that he evokes the spirit of both as well as a dandy, ahem, Hitchcockian thriller while make several salient observations about human nature, gay or straight, clothed or not.
It begins as an all-too explicit glimpse of the random, anonymous sex. Let me put it this way, there is at least one money shot. The hero, though in keeping with the nature of the film we don’t learn this right away, is Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a winsome ephebe of slender build and pleasant personality. While cruising the beach for a quickie, he strikes up a conversation with Henri (Patrick d’Assumcao), a schlub of a man with a bowl haircut and bulbous belly who, unlike the others, sits apart under a small tree, Buddha-like and retaining his shorts, if not always his shirt. Henri is a source of curiosity to the others. He is not interested in sex, but finds in the cruising part of the lake an opportunity to talk to strangers. As we learn, sex in this context can be infernally impersonal, ah, but conversation, that’s where the dangers of intimacy lurk, waiting to wreak havoc.
Most of the cast is completely naked most of the time as they drowse and cruise. This is not the nudity of the fine arts, nor even the calculated eroticism of standard pornography, this is the human body on display, but not unselfconsciously. The point is to attract a sex partner, and the point of the camera angle is to linger on what is most attractive to the cruisers. The angle is crotch-level and always in front, whether the owner of the crotch (or crotches) is prone taking a sunbath, or sitting casually with knees to chest, front and eye level we are confronted with the male organ in all its manifestations and varying states of arousal. This is also precise calculation, but of anything but an erotic sort. It is a challenge to convention that is graphic, deliberate, fiendishly editorial. So much so that while Henri’s refusal to disrobe is understood as a tacit acceptance that his physique might offend the sensibilities of the cruisers, the police inspector (Jerome Chapatte), an older but slender, well-built man, seems like the person out of place, etiquette-wise, as he snoops around in long pants and button-down shirt. That’s how this film gets into your head.
The inspector is investigating the drowning of a gay man who may or may not have been a serious boyfriend of Franck’s new crush, Michel (Christophe Paou), a ruggedly handsome man who shares the heights of Franck’s passion, but refuses to spend the night with him, or even share a meal. Henri, on the other hand, dumped by his wife, and longs not for sex but for companionship and perhaps a little platonic spooning, the which he tells Franck without a trace of self-consciousness, when confessing to Franck that Franck is the object of his cuddling desires. Franck is equally unselfconscious in telling Henri no to the cuddle, but yes to dinner. This one conversation is, in a masterful bit of cinema, the most naked moment in the entire film, and that includes that money shot I mentioned before.
It is, though, merely the quintessence. The subtlety of Guiraudie’s camera work, juxtaposition between distant shots and anatomical close-ups as the stuff of voyeurism, juxtaposed with the oddness of men who are naked, but not exposed in any inner or emotional sense is a revelatory premise. There have been films about the difference between sex and intimacy, but never one quite this devastatingly precise. It may be the most intellectual film about those topics ever made precisely because it, like its subjects, refuses to accept culturally approved boundaries when considering them. And this includes an ending that is terrifying, frustrating, and yet satisfying on both an emotional and intellectual level.
STRANGER BY THE LAKE is strong stuff. The hipster couple next to me at the screening left halfway through. Yet for those willing to let it work on its own terms, it is a brazen delight.