Movie Review - Stranger By the Lake

Christophe Paou (left) and Pierre
Deladonchamps in "Stranger By the Lake"
In so many gay films, there's the iconic, cruising spot. Aside from going to gay bars, which serves various purposes, gay men go to a cruising spot for the very specific and singular purpose of having sex with random, many and anonymous men. Most cruising spots are secluded and hidden from plain view. Others are more out in the open like parks and beaches.

One example of a cruising spot on film that's more secluded is the X-rated movie theater in Philadelphia (1993). One example of a cruising spot that's more out in the open is the night time path in New York's Central Park, as depicted in HBO's Angels in America. Those movies are supremely more chaste than this, which is probably a failing of American films. This film has no such failing because it's European, French in fact.

American films can only go as far as to suggest a cruising spot but not the gumption to ever truly put on film what goes on there without being described as pornographic. European films aren't as squeamish about showing graphic sexuality. The recent Blue is the Warmest Color is an example, and it too was a French film. The French don't seem to have a problem with showing the naked, human body, even the male one.

This movie, outside a porn film, possesses the most male nudity of any film I've seen projected on the silver screen. It probably has the most naked men in a movie ever and has them naked longer than any other movie, which in this case is nearly the movie's entire running time. It's not gratuitous, given the subject matter. This film is about a cruising spot, a cruising spot that is itself a nude beach and director Alain Guiraudie made the decision not to leave this nude beach at all. We never go home with any of the characters. We're confined to this nude beach from beginning to end, so obviously the nudity level is very high, if not constant.

For those who might be squeamish about constant male nudity, meaning there's no scene that doesn't show a man's penis, the director doesn't make it easy for you. He could have framed his shots only to show the men from angles that don't put their genitalia on constant display, but he didn't. He keeps the full-frontal nudity consistent. He makes sure you see the penis of every single man here and with a couple, makes you intimately familiar with it.

In fact, Guiraudie has several shots, which are wide shots of three totally nude men laying on their backs on the beach on a warm or hot, summer's day with their crotches in the foreground and their legs spread. Guiraudie then lingers on this shot for what seems like an awkward amount of time. The director is either leering or he's simply trying to normalize the audience to what has been normalized for these gay men. By putting all these penises front and center for extended periods of time, he figures to get you to a point of desensitization.

Pierre Deladonchamps stars as Franck, a handsome, young man who frequents this beach. So much so, he has befriended a few of the regulars and often they simply go swimming or lay on the beach and sunbathe. Franck will drive his clunky Renault 25 and park it in the same place everyday, next to a tree in the woods on the perimeter of the lake where this nude beach is. Franck will walk through the woods to the beach in a T-shirt and shorts and once there, he'll toss down a towel, strip off all his clothes and sit down. This happens over and over and each time Guiraudie will keep the camera wide enough as to always see Franck's entire body and always his penis in full view. Yet, after a while, as we become more invested in the characters and plot, Franck's penis ceases to be something at which we notice or stare. It merely becomes part of his skin, no more outstanding than his nose or his ear. It's just another body part.

Yes, there's graphic sex, but it's all simulated. It's not like pornography where there's actual penetration. Some filmmakers, including one or two American filmmakers have crossed that line. They made a narrative, seemingly mainstream film that did include actual penetration or unsimulated sex on camera. Within the past decade, those films included 9 Songs (2004), Lie With Me (2005) and Shortbus (2006). The latter of which was by Michael Winterbottom whose intention was to straddle the line between pornography and another type of performance that's purely sensual, that of music.

That's not Guiraudie's intention here. His intention is not simply to depict sex, merely for titillation or to revel in the experience. The director is trying to explore this world, the loneliness of it, its isolation and how desperate and dangerous it can be.

Of course, the beauty and the aesthetic can't be denied. Guiraudie does capture the wonderful nature and scenery of the lake like the glistening water, the beaming rocks and sand and the shimmering leaves as they catch flowing winds and break rays of the sun. There is also the beholding of the men. There are body types of all kind, but it's obvious and on purpose that one man is held up as the paragon.

Christophe Paou plays Michel. He's a younger, sexier, more French version of either Tom Selleck or David Hasselhoff. He gets the glamor shot several times of emerging nude out of the water and in one long continuous take, walking toward the camera in full glory. Every time, it's from Franck's point-of-view, and it's apparent at least one of those times that Franck is watching Michel with total rapture and completely lustful desire.

Patrick d'Assumçao plays Henri, an overweight, middle-aged, formerly married man who frequents the cruising spot but not to cruise or attempt to have sex with any of the men. While he might not be the best-looking man, it wouldn't be impossible for him to have sex. Yet, it's made clear that no one looks at Henri with any kind of rapture or lustful desire. However, Franck sits next to Henri almost everyday and has conversations with him.

The lack of sexual attraction between Franck and Henri allows them to talk and comment on the nature of the cruising spot and why Henri or anyone else might come there. At one point, Franck and Henri speak about swimming and Henri expresses a fear about going into the water because of the possible presence of a silurus.

A silurus is a sheatfish or a large catfish. A silurus glanis is found in the waters in and around Europe. The silurus can grow to be very large, up to four meters or 13 feet, and weigh close to 200 kilograms. While silurus don't normally attack humans, they are predatory.

Henri's comments and fears of the silurus seem like a bit of comedy here, but the silurus might just be a metaphor, a metaphor for the cruising spot and one or two of the people in it. Silurus like most catfish have no scales. Their bodies are often naked, much like the gay men walking and laying about this lake. The silurus or catfish are mostly bottom feeders. Bottom feeders are marine life that gets nourishment from the floor of a body of water, but bottom feeder is a figure of speech referring to people who are leeches or opportunists, often lacking in responsibility.

One could ascribe those qualities to several of the characters in this film, specifically Franck and Michel, but probably a lot of the gay men here. A lot about this film is also wet, slippery, animal instincts, coming out of a hunger that can only be satiated through base level things, or from low, deep places either within or outside of these men. Seeing them act on those hungers or react to what those hungers can bring is the true horror of this film. It makes this the sexiest and the scariest film I've ever seen. Others have said it eclipses Basic Instinct (1992), and I have to say I agree.

L'Inconnu du lac
Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but recommended for mature audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 37 mins.


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