Beach Boys
By Michael Koresky

Stranger by the Lake
Dir. Alain Guiraudie, France, Strand Releasing

Sex often arrives with an agenda in narrative cinema. Though speaking to a human need as basic as food and water, the ins and outs of physical desire come so burdened with questions of representation that the image of sex itself has been almost completely politically co-opted. Queer sex especially carries an imperative, as we’ve been conditioned to expect images of positivity in our gay cinema: pride above all. Viewers have come to be understandably wary of any movie that depicts gay sex as tortured or dangerous, fearful that it may intimate homosexuality itself is a dark desire or an aberration. The political weight of representation inevitably bears down on the viewer of Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake, an explicit film about amorphous desire that unapologetically combines menace and eroticism, and daringly—and most alienatingly for those who want to be told what to think at the movies—it has no agenda at all. This thoroughly intoxicating experience manages to exploit sex without cheapening it, interrogate without demonizing it. If for Antonioni Eros was sick, for Guiraudie he’s alive and well, though he’s holding hands with Thanatos.

Stranger by the Lake is, like its characters—and viewers—seeking gratification. Though in search of thrills, it’s a tranquil film, playing out as gently as water lapping an empty shore. Set over the course of only a handful of days, the movie takes place entirely in one location: a small, secluded beach somewhere in France that functions as a cruising spot for gay men. Guiraudie fragments this limited space into a variety of tantalizing sub-locations—a makeshift parking lot; the pebbled, nude beach itself; the tall grasses beyond, strewn with Kleenex and condom wrappers—each filmed with a geometric precision that somehow never comes across as sterile. The place is ripe with possibility, especially for Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a lithe, appealing boy-next-door type who has arrived at the lake for the first time this summer. The manner in which the handful of mostly older beach-dwellers’ heads turn when Franck first lays down his blanket clues us in that he’s a potential hot property here. We know instantly that everybody on the beach wants Franck. But who and what does Franck want?

Because of his friendly, fresh-faced guilelessness, Franck would seem to make an accessible protagonist, but the film goes on to reveal him to be a frustrating one. Franck’s desires are not as readable as we might expect—and his murky sexual wants form the crux of the film, while the other characters, with their own specific appetites, rotate around him as satellites of desire. The most sharply drawn of these is roly-poly middle-aged Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), who always occupies a lonely perch on the left side of the beach, away from the more populous spots, like a shunned gargoyle waiting for a friend rather than a hawk scouring for a mate. “At cruising spots, at least you talk to strangers,” he shrugs, never letting on that he wants anything more than conversation. Franck, evidently attracted to the novelty of Henri’s asexuality, is drawn to him. Their developing emotional connection is broken by the arrival of a drool-worthy new visitor: hairy-chested, mustachioed Michel (Christophe Paou), the 1970s ideal of a Greek god. The emotionally remote brunette to Franck’s earnest blond, Michel is the type of fatally irresistible loner one might expect to see in lower-rent movies than this one. Here he’s an instantly deconstructed image of a fantasy man; Franck doesn’t prove as discerning as the camera eye, and trails him eagerly into the tall grass.

Soon, we learn that Michel is a potentially quite dangerous man, even more of a threat than the fabled 15-foot silurus Henri claims is in the lake. This is revealed to us in an astonishingly mounted single take, which takes in little more than the expanse of lake at dusk and two silhouetted figures bobbing in it. Thanks to an expertly placed reverse shot of Franck, we know that he knows this as well. Rather than curtail his attraction to the eerily self-possessed stud, what he sees seems to intrigue him (in a lesser filmmaker’s hands, dialogue or even voiceover would better elucidate his psychology). From this point forward, Guiraudie fully equates sex with danger, whether in terms of barebacking or the promise of real violence. One day drifts into the next; a nosy inspector (Jérome Chappatte, with a cocked posture) comes sniffing about a mysterious disappearance, penetrating the sanctum of this closed-off world. Yet just when we think we have a handle on the emotional and physical parameters of this tiny, all-male microcosm, it seems to grow ever more elusive; what at first seems tenably enigmatic, like a particularly masterful Claude Chabrol film, ends up as ungraspable as human sexuality itself.

The daring of Guiraudie’s vision lies in its matter-of-factness—is this the first time a filmmaker (of pornographic films or not) has made scrotums such an integral part of the mise-en-scène? There they are, lolling about in the afternoon sun between men’s relaxed, spread-apart legs, with the camera set at ground level. We don’t become inured to these uncommon cinematic sights, exactly, but we begin to accept them as objects, desexualized by their sheer proliferation. Though it concerns the act of watching (the beach’s dowdiest troll, Eric, played by Mathieu Vervisch, mostly prefers to peer at others getting it on while masturbating), the film feels neither voyeuristic nor clinical, existing in a curious in-between state. Gay viewers especially, such as this one, may feel a push-pull between titillation and trepidation while watching Stranger by the Lake, which features glimpses of sex, simulated and non—including a cum shot, with a body double, and a blow job—which are both undeniably erotic and overlaid with a sense of doom. Anyone who claims the film skirts eroticism via its austerity may forget that there are few forms of entertainment more austere than pornography.

Sex is part and parcel of Stranger by the Lake’s form, but it’s not all there is to this becalmed thriller of vividly drawn textures. As crucial to the film’s rhythm and feeling are such details as the way the men put on sneakers after emerging from the water to the rocky shore, or all those establishing shots of parked cars, repeated with enough regularity to make the film feel indebted to a structural avant-garde tradition. The film never strays from its fixed location, leaving anyplace beyond this summer idyll strictly in the viewer’s imagination; recurring discussions of Franck and Henri meeting for dinner only serve to tease the possibility of an outside world. These moments also remind us that these men can come and go from here, as Franck often seems caught in this odd paradise-turned-purgatory—a cyclical trap created by his own death drive.

Stranger by the Lake unavoidably equates homosexual desire with peril and thus allows for a reading that it views gay sex as itself dangerous. Cast exclusively with men, most of them stripped down to their aggressive essentials (only one woman appears briefly onscreen, gawking at the surely notorious beach from a boat of straights), the film is less about gayness than the single-minded, direct elegance of masculine desire. Guiraudie has the breathtaking audacity to tie queer male lovemaking to crude instinct. It’s all so magnificently pared down, from the filmmaking to the men themselves—these are unblemished, almost primitive-looking bodies, not a tattoo in the bunch. Its simplicity is oddly complex. After all, there are few things that can be blunter yet more loaded than an erection.