BY BRIAN BELAK
In Stranger by the Lake (2013), showing at Doc Films at the University of Chicago on May 24, murder and sex combine at a sun-drenched lake locale to create a slow-burning, yet passionate, thriller.
The film takes place on a quiet, lakeside beach, where male sunbathers meet and go into the woods together to have sex. One sunbather, Franck, falls for another, Michel, but when Franck witnesses Michel drown his previous partner, Franck must decide whether to follow his desires for Michel or stay away for his own safety.
Writer/director Alain Guiradie chooses to never let the film leave the lake, although Franck, Michel, and the others are shown to come and go. Franck even tries to make Michel come home with him one night, but Michel refuses, insisting that their relationship stay only at the lake. In this way, the lake is solidified as a safe haven for gay relations, where what happens there doesn’t spread out into other parts of the sunbathers’ lives.
Despite this singular locale, the film never feels confined or claustrophobic. The beach itself is expansive, with different sunbathers marking out sections and becoming annoyed when intruded upon. The woods and the parking lot then feel like entirely different worlds when compared with the beach, despite being only a few meters away from each other. Even when there is clearly a large number of couples spread throughout the forest, the shots of Franck and Michel, surrounded by foliage, feel singular and intimate.
Furthermore, the strongest aspect of the film is the way in which the lake is portrayed. The lake and beach are shot in beautiful late afternoon sun, which gives way to orange sunsets before each night. There are many shots when Franck and Michel are in silhouette together with the sun setting behind them that perfectly encapsulate their passion for one another. Additionally, the entire film lacks a score, the meditative ambient sound instead taken up solely by waves slowly hitting the beach or birds chirping in the background.
The sex scenes, which occur very frequently, are explicit and excessive. With the film never leaving the lake, it makes sense for the characters to mainly due what they come to the lake to do, but too much time is spent portraying sex instead of developing characters or plot. When the film ends, not much has been revealed about Franck, Michel, or anyone else beyond that they enjoy sex.
During those moments when Franck and Michel are merely lounging on the beach, they often lounge nude, and the film makes no attempts at censorship. Franck, Michel, and most of the other sunbathers are young and fit, and the camera seems to revel in their physical forms and showing off parts usually forbidden in cinema.
Besides Franck and Michel, the only other character to have significant screen-time is Henri, an older sunbather whose wife has just recently left him. Whereas Franck and Michel’s relationship is almost entirely built on sex and passion in the woods, Franck and Henri do nothing but sit on the beach together and talk. Their conversations happen throughout the film and provide a refreshing human aspect to the events occurring. Henri is also the one to notice Franck’s relationship with Michel might be a danger to him, warning Franck to stay away from Michel, though Franck does not listen at first.
Eventually the body of Michel’s former partner is discovered, and a detective comes to the lake to investigate the murder, pressuring Franck to decide whether or not to turn Michel in. Franck lies to the detective for a while, but the subtle threats from Michel are finally enough that Franck realizes he must do something, if only for his own protection, and confronts Michel.
Not long after Franck’s confrontation, Stranger by the Lake ends abruptly and instantly diffuses the tension it had been building for most of its duration. Besides the initial murder, most major narrative events occur near the end, and it feels like the film had started to pick up its pace in the last twenty minutes only to finish without any real closure for either Franck or Michel.
For more information about Doc Films, visit docfilms.uchicago.edu.