For more than two decades, Alain Guiraudie has been unrivaled in depicting desires that upend convention, whether homo or hetero. In the comedy The King of Escape (2009), for instance, a middle-aged gay man falls in love with a 16-year-old girl; the film ends with an all-male gerontophilic ménage à quatre. The couplings in Guiraudie's latest movie, Stranger by the Lake, a bracing thriller set at a gay cruising spot in rural southeast France, are less diverse. But the writer-director's attention to the anarchic pull of lust, simultaneously celebrated and reproved here, is sharper than ever.
Guiraudie's most sexually explicit and narratively taut work, Stranger by the Lake — which won the Best Director prize in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival — is the first of his movies to have a stateside release. Though its structure is simple — the film unfolds over ten consecutive summer days, its action confined to the lake and the nearby grove where sex is sought — Stranger abounds with precision and detail, evinced not only in the spectacular visual composition but also in the observation of behavioral codes in carnally charged spaces.
That decorum includes its fair share of chitchat and pleasantries, as when Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a lake regular, greets a fellow habitué, who, lying naked on a towel, makes a few banal observations about the sparse attendance that day. Lean and boyishly handsome, russet-haired Franck attracts lustful looks as he strips down to his black swim briefs; after a slow front crawl, he spots a newcomer, Henri (Patrick d'Assumçao), sitting alone. The easy friendship Franck strikes up with this corpulent older visitor highlights Guiraudie's gift for exploring the intricacies of both platonic and libidinal pairings, recalling the camaraderie (mostly homosocial, occasionally homosexual) among the factory workers in his medium-length film from 2001, That Old Dream That Moves. But soon Franck is visibly distracted while talking to his new pal and ogles a beautiful, muscular figure emerging from the water.
As Franck heads into the woods to seek out this Adonis, we learn more about the particulars of meat-rack etiquette, rituals whose frequent incongruities Guiraudie often playfully, affectionately sends up. The funniest of these exchanges occurs later in the film: After he has orally serviced Franck, a tubby guy who often lurks in the woods with his hand down his shorts concludes the act by saying, "You've got a great cock. Well, I gotta go," and shaking hands.
These droll moments balance the increasingly ominous tone, particularly after Franck, who's just jerked off with a guy in a Batman T-shirt, sees the hunk from the previous day drowning his lover in the lake. The murder seems to arouse Franck even more; two days after the crime, he and the homicidal stud — named, we eventually learn, Michel (Christophe Paou) — all but devour each other, deep-kissing, fellating, mutually masturbating, and barebacking alfresco.
That this thrusting and jizzing takes place amid such natural splendor only adds to the sense that this lakeside spot is a gay paradise. Though ostensibly set in the present day, or at least during a post-AIDS epoch (whether or not they are deployed, safe-sex practices are always broached), Guiraudie's film seems curiously out of time: There are no cell phones or other devices, and not a single tattoo or piercing adorns any of the characters. Michel especially, with his Boys in the Sand-era mustache, evokes the 1970s, and surely not by accident; that decade's storied homo hedonism greatly informs the spirit of Stranger by the Lake. (Born in 1964, the openly gay Guiraudie would have entered his teens in the late '70s.)
Yet, as Eros becomes more inextricably bound up with Thanatos, the film takes a dimmer view of total sexual freedom. This is most piercingly articulated by the beaky, bespectacled inspector (Jérôme Chappatte) trying to solve the murder: "Two days later, everybody's back cruising as if nothing's happened," he says to Franck, who lies to the detective to protect Michel (and himself). "You guys have a strange way of loving each other sometimes."
Just how strange is made clear in Stranger's closing scenes, a conclusion that, when I first saw the movie last fall, struck me as outrageous, a too-easy ending for a project that had been, until then, smart, generous, and unpredictable. A recent second viewing, though, has lessened that ire: The characters' decisions make more sense, their final actions less incoherent if no less shocking. The last face we see in Stranger by the Lake is shrouded in darkness, but the film itself is never less than incandescent.