Death and darkness await in Alain Guiraudie’s beautiful but malevolent film.
Alain Guiraudie directed one of the most talked about—but ultimately, ignored—films at Cannes this year, Stranger by the Lake (L’Inconnu du Lac). First of all, his film got shunted into the “second-tier” Un Certain Regard section (only winning the Un Certain Regard prize for Best Director). Then, it almost disappeared into the ether after the headline-grabbing, Palme d’Or winning La Vie d’Adèle. A travesty, because it’s a remarkable film; a malevolent look at desire shot with the philosophical rigour of French literature (Georges Bataille and the like) at its trangressive best.
The narrative has a simple and rigorous set-up. It’s set over ten days, but restricted to the same few locations: the car-park (the same establishing shot for each day), the woods, the beach, and the water. It’s a strong geometric structure that builds on top of itself, but in a way that becomes tighter and tighter. The characters’ routines, despite this increasing constriction, are banal: sun-tanning, cruising, and going home. We see nothing of their outside lives. But underneath the monotony, the wind picks up, and we get hints that things don’t appear right.
Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is a regular at a French lake-side beach. It’s summer, it’s hot, and it’s a chance for the men to escape. The traditional carnivalesque notion of getting away from it all via a summer holiday is certainly the clear initial feeling evoked. Franck strikes up a slow-burning friendship with the awkward Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), but his real desire is towards Michel (Christophe Paou). Michel is almost pure pleasure incarnate. Everything about him appears desirable—his ease in communication, his approach to sex, and his muscular body (and er, ’70s moustache). Franck, however, witnesses Michel murder his lover—but still finds himself drawn towards Michel nonetheless. The men’s world is one of strong codes, ritualised behaviour, and self-justifying morality. The one truly rational character, an inspector investigating the murder, becomes an annoyingly intrusive presence.
The film’s editing is nothing short of remarkable. The eye-lines don’t quite match. The points of view change. What we see, and what the characters are looking at, isn’t the same thing. Often we see the reaction shot first—but whose?—followed by characters looking. We see very few shot/reverse-shot patterns, that classical Hollywood tactic of linking the audience’s gaze with the character’s gaze. Wide shots rather than close-ups dominate. The lack of clear perspective adds an incredible unease throughout the film. Unlike Hitchcock’s Rear Window, an ostensibly similar film—where our voyeuristic desires to watch death merge into Jimmy Stewart’s desire to watch—this is much more ambivalent. Instead, the film operates on what Guiraudie himself has called a “linear sense of suspense,” rather than any sense of narrative linearity.
Despite the limited use of settings, the visuals are stunning. The lake, a scene of leisure and escape, is instead imprisoning—the concave nature of the hills almost suffocating the men. The woods, a scene for pleasure and desire, are incredibly dangerous. The magic hour sunset light, usually used in cinema to highlight transience or beauty, is by far the most dangerous time for the characters. The men are depicted almost like insects, dominated by the lake and the greenery. Its most striking moments are the key murder scene (a bravura long shot), and a later scene, in which Franck almost appears like the children in Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter—a child being chased alongside the water by something much bigger and much more inexplicable than he has realised.
The chatter around the film has been the frankness of the sex, and unfortunately this may lead distributors and the like to view it as too niche. The film’s poster art—featuring simply two men kissing—has been taken down in protest by the town halls of a number of well-heeled Parisian suburbs. However, to focus in on that would be to over-simplify and devalue the film. It’s a genuinely erotic and beautiful film, but Guiraudie isn’t interested in simply letting the viewer submit to pleasure. In the characters’ desperate quest to perfect their desire, the characters may ultimately have to choose death and darkness. The darkness that arrives with the credits, heightened by the abrupt ending, is Guiraudie’s sly way of providing no sense of comfort to his audience either.