Notes on “Stranger by the Lake”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

stranger

In “Stranger by the Lake,” writer-director Alain Guiraudie mines some of the thematic veins explored by William Friedkin in “Cruising”: it’s a picture about the danger and exhibitionism inherent in male-on-male courtship. The setting is a lake in the south of France where gay men gather to sunbathe in the nude. Slim, tanned, and toned like underwear models, they lie on the gravel-strewn shores, their cocks flopped between their legs in nonchalant advertisement. When an agreement is arrived at, they pair off, put on their sneakers, and stride into the surrounding woods for sex. Then they dress, get in their cars, and go home. We see nothing of their lives away from the lake. In fact, we never leave the locale. Guiraudie wants us to understand that the lake is an independent world with its own set of rules, a place where men gather not just for company but to test their physical limits — preferably in front of an audience. The lake itself is a sexual metaphor: mysteriously placid and rumored to be filled with giant catfish, it beckons the naked bodies with pleasures both tantalizing and menacing.

The stark setting helps to aestheticize the actors’ bodies. Emerging from the water or lounging on the shore, the men have the physical poise — the repose — of the athletes depicted on Greek pottery. It doesn’t hurt that Guiraudie has a painter’s eye for composition; it lends his and cinematographer Claire Mathon’s images a serene monumentality that banishes any hint of tawdriness or camp. (I can’t think of another movie that treats male nudity so classically.) When Guiraudie wants to shift moods, he modulates the lighting and the effects of the sun and weather. As in Rohmer’s films, the wind in the treetops seems keyed to the characters’ inner turmoil. The movie’s design ethos might be described as minimalist, and the urge to pare away extends to the diagrammatic plot, which has Pierre Deladonchamps’ Franck fall for Christophe Paou’s  Michel. The latter man may be a murderer, but Franck is too smitten to exercise caution. The resulting conflict plays out in ways that suggest an erotic thriller reduced to its most basic elements.

Not everything works. There’s something banal in the way the knife’s-edge sexiness of Michel is contrasted with the glumness of a lake regular named Henri, portrayed with Depardieu-like fleshiness by Patrick D’Assumçao. I fear we’re intended to understand Henri in straight terms, as the dowdy girl whom the good boy overlooks in favor of the sexy femme fatale. I think we’re also supposed to share in the guilt Franck experiences as a result of his rejecting Henri in favor of someone more exciting. But, then, Guiraudie is aiming for something elemental, and he needs to plumb the banal in order to get at the roots of his material. If he doesn’t quite stick the landing it may have more to do with the fact that his even-keeled, abstracted approach doesn’t grant us access to the madness of Franck’s desire. There’s a melodramatic premise here, but we’re kept outside of it. The tenor is closer to l’amour intellectuel than l’amour fou.

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
This entry was posted in Movies, Sex and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Notes on “Stranger by the Lake”

  1. agnostic says:

    “The film also won the Queer Palm award.[5]”

    I see they’ve gone and re-branded the Palm on the Underage Ballsack award. Is nothing sacred anymore?

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  2. Ardvark Q. Empilosmythstock III says:

    If this site is going to become yet another place where we have to have faggotry slapped in our faces, then I’m moving on. It’s fucking repulsive and I’m tired of it being dressed up as “art” or something else. I’ve got fag overload. It’s 24×7 on news, TV, etc, etc etc.

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  3. agnostic says:

    About it being an erotic thriller — not at all, and its failings reveal the profoundly warped nature of male homosexuality.

    In an erotic thriller like Basic Instinct, the tension arises from the male protagonist’s curiosity about a woman who seems as capable of violence as a man, and wanting to square off toe-to-toe against her. Her violent tendencies intrigue him rather than frighten him — it’s not like she’d be able to take on *me*.

    He likes to scratch, she claws his back. He half-rapes his girlfriend, the killer babe ties him up in bed and aggresses against him. Worthy fucking adversary.

    That’s the erotic thriller: alpha or usually wannabe alpha male seeks his thrills by competing against the femme fatale, uncertain of which combatant will ultimately one-up the other for good. It’s the guys who get a rush from taunting a girl to “hit me with your best shot, honey”.

    The fraidy-cat twink in this queer-directed movie doesn’t play that role at all. He doesn’t see the killer as his equal, and wanting to get his kicks from jockeying for position, as it were. He’s frightened by him, realizes he could be the next victim, but is so empty and desperate that he’ll pursue a quick fix at any cost, having to block out those rational fears for the couple of minutes it takes for the killer to blow his diseased wad up the sissy’s butt.

    So, completely opposite of the contest between equals in the erotic thriller, the gay killer fantasy is based on one of them having total power and the other showing total submission, perhaps to the extreme of being killed by the other.

    Dudes fantasizing about sexually wrastlin’ with women is shameful, but it’s not a sign of being severely fucked in the head. Gay fantasies, on the other hand, always reveal profound mental illness. The winner of the Queer Palm award is trying to romanticize what is soulless, and to aestheticize what is disgusting and ugly.

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  4. agnostic says:

    Thus it’s possible for the protag in an erotic thriller to be tragic, his downfall stemming from arrogantly tempting fate by daring the femme fatale to take off the kid gloves and hit him for real. I don’t know of an example that actually tries to make him tragic, let alone succeed at it, but at least it’s possible, and the basic idea comes across in any good erotic thriller, like Basic Instinct.

    The victim in the gay killer fantasy flick is not brought down by any kind of hubris, but by an extreme form of negligence. He knows full well how violent the other guy is, how likely he is to wind up as his next victim, but he’s just gotta have his cock fix.

    That’s no more tragic than some junkie continuing to shoot up knowing damn well what the substance will ultimate do to him. It’s pathetic, disturbing, and makes a normal person want to lock him up in a supervised facility where he can no longer harm himself.

    We don’t respond that way to the arrogant tempter of the femme fatale — arrogance implies a certain degree of maturity, so it’s his own fault that he got killed by the psycho (“I tole you dat bitch crazy”).

    But just pretending that a real and imminent danger will somehow magically go away, is just infantile. Our reflex is that this person isn’t totally responsible for what’s happened to them, because their mental development has been arrested or retarded.

    We don’t get satisfaction from seeing them met their demise — satisfaction in the sense of righteous vindication. Maybe we’re generically sad, maybe we’re just glad the junkie has kicked the bucket and won’t be around to bother us with his self-destruction any longer. Either way, there’s no happy ending to the gay killer movie.

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  5. JV says:

    I keep getting this movie and Top of the Lake mixed up in my head. Both are in my Netflix queue, haven’t seen either yet. Based on the growing length of the queue (ahem) and the speed at which I’m getting through it, I’m sure I’ll get around to watching one or both by the year 2050.

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  6. Sheogorath says:

    @ agnostic: Has it ever occurred to you that mental illness is more likely to be at the root of homophobia rather than homosexuality? After all, it’s only humans that can be mentally ill (apart from trauma) and only humans that are homophobic.

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