Stranger By the Lake: sex at the margins

On the Cannes prize-winner...

At once vague and functional, the title of Stranger By the Lake (in French, L’inconnu du lac) harks back to the golden age of film noir. Like the handsome serial killer at its centre, though, something isn’t right. As it unfolds, this disarmingly innocuous French film grows suspiciously harmless, before its superlatively woven tension boils over into outright thriller territory. Audaciously casual in its homoeroticism, writer-director Alain Guiraudie’s sixth feature film is uncomfortable viewing not because of its flesh-heavy ensemble cast or its graphic sex scenes, but because of the dread that pervades its claustrophobically-rendered idyllic setting.

Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) spends his long summer days at a beautifully serene lakeside cruising spot for homosexual males. Here, mere eye contact is enough to spark a sexual encounter up in the neighbouring woods. When Franck first meets the dashing Michel (Christophe Paou), the latter is apparently with a long-term partner. Then, staying back to pursue his own dalliance one night, Franck witnesses what he thinks is Michel murdering his lover—an incident made all the more horrific by Franck’s self-deluding attraction to the apparent killer.

Stranger By the Lake took the festival circuit by storm last year, beginning with its director winning a Best Directing Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Some controversy precedes the film’s UK release, relating to (rather abstract) depictions of fellatio in the background of its posters—which are, tellingly, barely noticeable on first glance. The film’s release in UK cinemas should however be commended. For too long, our theatres have been devoid of films in which homosexuality is merely a casual part of the storyline, without need of a grand social issue to chew on.

Some may nevertheless see in the film a viciously satirical take on the prejudices and irrationalities that still equate homosexuality with some kind of insidious threat. More soberly, though, the film’s dramatic edge stems from its remote setting. While the action never leaves the lakeside, all characters must repeatedly journey to it in order to fulfil their basic bodily needs. The implication is that, so long as casual sex in the gay community isn’t spoken about with the same kind of freedom as its heterosexual equivalent, homosexuality is driven to the social margins—margins where opportunistic crime awaits.

Originally written 6 February 2014.