Genre: Drama, Thriller
Directed by: Alain Guiraudie
Starring: Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou
The wind rustles through the trees as the dying sun reflects gently off the water. A depleting number of sunbathers bask in the final rays of the day. A few men shuffle furtively past, warily testing out eye contact. It is a picturesque site to come and relax, an exciting site to come and meet someone. It is also home to a callous murderer and his uncontrollably besotted lover. Alain Guiraudie’s thriller weaves together the sensual, the sexual and the sinister to create an atmosphere that gradually closes in until it is too late to escape.
Guiraudie is certainly in no hurry. Obsession unfolds on its own time. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is an annual visitor to a popular lakeside cruising spot but he is newly arrived this summer. He hangs around assessing the other regulars while striking up a friendship with Henri (Patrick D’Assumçao), a quiet, resigned man in his middle age who is hanging around on his own after splitting up with his wife. But it is the bronzed and moustachioed Michel (Christophe Paou) who catches his eye. They flirt with the barest of interactions until he realises Michel is with another man.
Settling for second best, Franck engages in a brief and explicit sex act in the woods only to emerge alone at dusk to the sight of Michel and his boyfriend in the lake. What looks like harmless horseplay takes a turn for the worse and soon only one man is returning to the beach. Even with the slightly eccentric Police Inspector Damroder (Jérôme Chappatte) closing in, Franck finds obsession taking over as he is drawn ever closer to Michel.
A steady, suffocating build-up is the order of the day. No moves are made to break up the pace, nor are any needed. Even murder is oddly mundane, part of the gradual plot progression. The urges driving Franck and Michel ramp up slowly until the stress hits breaking point.
Filmed at the Lake of Sainte-Croix, a man-made construction in south east France that may as well have come straight off a postcard, the setting proves to be both liberating and claustrophobic. Rolling waves of stately green forest stretch off to the mountains in the distance but the action all unfolds in a very narrow space along a thin strip of beach and the woods directly behind. By trapping the characters in such a small space, obsession can fester before tipping over the edge.
Guiraudie allows the finale to draw near only through a steady re-treading of the same daily routine. It is like watching an extended flip-book, Franck repeating the same steps until he passes the point of no return. It is an unstoppable descent seemingly obvious to all involved. Even Damroder, left to roam the woods in search of clues, is pretty sure he has his man but cannot seem to do all that much about it.
Guiraudie requires understated performances and Deladonchamps and Paou in particular deliver. Paou installs a sinister sparkle in Michel’s eye, blazing his guilt to everyone even as he maintains a stiffly confident poise, inscrutable under interrogation. Deladonchamps is similarly reserved but the strain shows more as does the longing. Sexual desire is etched on his face from the off. Guiraudie is not afraid to explore the erotic dimensions of his tale. There is an invigorating lack of judgement. Sex scenes hold a realistic air, part overwhelming passion, part sordid encounter. There is even one very graphic shot that is as startling for its brevity as it is for its candid explicitness.
The story would not be able to move forward without the sexual charge that connects Franck and Michel. There is an element of pure lust combined with infatuation mistaken for love. Henri forms the third point of an uneven triangle, clearly drawn towards Franck but uninterested, or unwilling to engage physically. An unsettling atmosphere is established through the brilliant use of sound that utilises only natural background noise. It brings to the fore the isolated nature of their intense encounter before trapping Franck when he starts to doubt his decisions.
All of this builds to a disorienting end. Steadily impressive, Stranger by the Lake is unsettling and disturbing, combining sex, power and sociopathy to deadly effect. It is a potent mix.