Published Sep 06, 2013Much like he did with the incisive and playfully idiosyncratic The King of Escape, director Alain Guiraudie deconstructs and evaluates the homosexual lifestyle and resulting ideological makeup without pulling any punches in Stranger by the Lake. Here, he's moved past the comically framed Peter Pan comparisons of Escape to consider the act of cruising within a cultural climate conscious of AIDS.
This film is very much a work of repetition and formality, documenting days that bleed together around a small lake where Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) cruises every day, exchanging friendly greetings with other nude sunbathers before following whatever bland, traditionally attractive fresh meat catches his eye into the nearby woods. The division of days is signified only by a static shot of Franck's beat-up car pulling into a clearing and wandering off into the trees with nothing but a towel.
Aside from some minor variance in the assortment of fully nude men standing around the beach or wandering around in the woods, nothing about Franck's experience changes, save the introduction of Henri (Patrick d'Assumçao), a recently divorced, "curious" man (of a less traditionally desirable body type and age) that sits off to the side, clothed, uninterested in cruising.
Franck is social with the man, inquiring about his background briefly before running off to follow whatever anonymous peen he has his eyes set on for the day, which is how he's introduced to Michel (Christophe Paou), a conventionally attractive oddball that casually drowns a tryst after he becomes too attached to him.
This murder happens early in the movie, leaving absolutely no mystery to the "killer" angle; Guiraudie isn't interested in literal mystery so much as he wants to understand the queer psyche. Franck witnesses the kill but, rather than freaking out or reporting Michel to the police, he pursues the man, thrilled by the danger of it all, ultimately putting into action the subconscious, self-hating desire to die that cruising represents.
That all of this has to do with AIDS isn't much of a secret. Early on, Franck attempts to fellate a stranger that refuses to engage without a condom. Franck isn't impressed, which corresponds with his decision to have bareback sex, sans lube, with Michel at the first opportunity.
Fortunately, Stranger by the Lake isn't satisfied with drawing a mere, rather obvious comparison amidst its cyclical exercise in surprisingly engaging cinematic redundancy. A police investigator, troubled by the dead body, is the only party concerned about the murder. That the men — quick to dispose of each other after orgasm is achieved or, as represented by the quickly sparked relationship between Franck and Michel that never leaves the beach, after the hormones have worn off — care more about the police officer interfering with their ritual is, in itself, a commentary about their community.
Similarly, the juxtaposition of Franck's friendship with Henri — one based upon mutual compassion and interest in each other as people — with that of Michel, one that revolves around carnal impulses and a lack of consideration for compatibility beyond ejaculation, which is demonstrated in close-up, suggests an inherent, self-destructive superficiality. As passive cultural performers, these men display their goods as readily as they judge others by their physical assets, which, as something contrary to the heterosexual male ideology, helps shine a light on just where the marginalized self-hatred stems from.
Though all of this seems vaguely homophobic, Guiraudie's casual, knowing eye suggests that he's assessing the situation from the inside, merely trying to understand and depict a subsection of society, warts and all. If anything, it's an admonitory or call for self-awareness from inside the gay community, asking those titillated by watching a film with copious full-frontal nudity to consider, just for a second, what might be a few feet above the large member and ripped six-pack they're ogling and fetishizing thoughtlessly.
Guiraudie is mirroring the queer preoccupation with heteronormative beauty with a tendency to loathe and compare the self to a very limiting, rigid mainstream culture that demands assimilation, even in a physical sense, leaving the subjugated other to have an imposed self-hatred and, ultimately, death wish.