Movies We Like
Stranger by the Lake
Talking about sex on film and why he felt it didn’t work Orson Welles once said, “Ecstasy isn’t really part of the scene we can do on celluloid.” I wonder what he would have made of Stranger by the Lake, a film that is about almost nothing but sex. Okay, you might say it’s about the search for connection, and the complicated nature of human relationships, and it’s kind of a murder mystery as well but everyone is naked almost the entire time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many uncircumcised penises (it’s French..) in a movie before. As a thriller, it works well enough. The nudity is distracting to a point but it works in tandem with the languid pacing and serenity of the visuals. This is, in some sense, a nature film.
The film takes place at a cruising spot near a lake in France. Men come to sunbathe nude, and to go into the woods nearby to have anonymous sex. It’s a world unto itself with its own peculiar rules and set of codes. Real life doesn’t seem to intrude but that’s an illusion because the dangers of the real world are ominously close. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is a regular who is more drawn to this spot than he wants to admit. He likes disappearing into the woods. He strips, he swims, he sunbathes, he cruises, and the scenes have an unobtrusive medium-shot matter-of-fact-ness about them. They look like anthropologists doing fieldwork on gay subcultures could have shot them.
Franck meets a bashful big guy named Henri (Patrick d’Assumcao) who sits off by himself, away from the others. He never takes off his clothes and hugs his torso in a constant pose of compulsive repression. Franck enjoys Henri’s company but he is infatuated with another guy who comes to the lake named Michel (Christophe Paou). Michel looks a little bit evil. It’s in the eyes (if you can bother to look). For all the hedonistic sex happening in the woods near the lake and the constant cruising taking place, many of the guys there are territorial about the men they hook up with. Michel’s lover reproaches Franck for talking to Michel. But at night, after the rest of the men have left their little spot, Franck sees Michel murder his lover out in the lake. We see it from Franck’s point of view: two black silhouettes out in the water at dusk. It’s eerily tranquil for something so violent happening. The scene itself is reminiscent of the murder scene in Blow-Up, another film where the mystery at the center seems to spread to everything we’re watching, not just the murder.
Franck keeps coming back to the lake and can’t help but be drawn to Michel, now free of minor irritations such as a jealous lover whom he did away with. Henri, sensing more than he lets on, tries to talk sense into Franck, but even Franck knows it’s useless to try and reason with him. He can’t help it. These men come to their hidden spot put aside the rules and customs of life in a heterosexist society, to disappear into the woods for a fleeting encounter with a stranger. The conceit of the idea is that real life doesn’t rear itself into view there, but of course it does. When an inspector (looking like the love child of Jean Luc Godard and Jarvis Cocker) starts asking Franck questions he seems mystified that their cruising ritual goes right on without pausing even after, as he puts it, “one of your own” has been murdered there. Franck seems momentarily shaken by this view. It’s no coincidence that the film ends with him attempting to disappear again.
Some have called the film “Hitchcockian” but it makes me think of Patricia Highsmith’s work even more. Highsmith had a knack for disturbing psychological observations that were, in some ways, less restrained than Hitchcock’s. As a gay woman, she was more familiar with outsiders than he was. She could get under your skin. And more than anything this is a movie that gets under one’s skin. This is a movie she would have understood.