This Cannes-feted feature from French writer-director Alain Guiraudie—an idiosyncratic artist who is sadly little-known outside cinephile circles—is a mesmeric mix of queer-culture ethnography and Hitchcockian potboiler. Our lead is the swimmer’s-bod buff Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), who struts with genial confidence around the shimmering lake that is the film’s only location. Franck’s not one of those pretty boys who avoids anyone plus-size, but though he becomes fast friends with the lonely, obese Henri (Patrick D’Assumçao), his eye and libido are more tickled by the '70s-porn-mustache-sporting Michel (Christophe Paou). The only potential problem? One evening, Franck witnesses Michel drowning a conquest—which does little to negate his attraction.
Plenty of gay-themed films have included murder as a plot point; William Friedkin’s loathsome Cruising made an early-AIDS-era spectacle of the divide separating loving and life-ending penetration. What distinguishes Guiraudie’s approach is his keen eye for queer conduct: He spends most of the first half hour acclimating us to the movie’s libidinal microcosmos—an Edenic haven where gay males of all types lie around nude and sneak off into the whispering woods for sex—before seguing into a deeply unsettling exploration of infatuation.
Though Stranger by the Lake leans a bit too heavily on its long-take, slow-cinema bona fides, there’s a clear purpose to Guiraudie’s rigorous perspective. He’s out to unearth the very potent (and often terrifying) emotions underlying every explicit act, sexual or otherwise. As Franck comes to learn over the course of this hauntingly elemental allegory, death and love are consummate bedfellows.
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