Dangerous Liaisons

James Quandt on Stranger by the Lake

Alain Guiraudie, L’Inconnu du lac (Stranger by the Lake), 2013, 35 mm, color, sound, 97 minutes. Michel (Christophe Paou) and Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps).

“WHAT IS IMPORTANT IS THE ARCHITECTURE,” Claude Chabrol once claimed. “You can’t actually see it in a film, but it is there. It is abstract but you must have it.” Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake imposes an architecture, more obvious than abstract, on a wild and isolated setting: a gay nude beach and forested cruising area in southern France. The film’s formalist structure—Stranger takes place in a single location over ten consecutive days, all but the final two introduced by a similar fixed shot of an adjacent parking area—intensifies its depiction of the vagaries of desire, an amour so fou it courts death as its inevitable end. Reminiscent of Chabrol’s rural thrillers, particularly Le Boucher (1970), which also opens with a high-angled pastoral view (of a Périgord valley), Guiraudie’s film turns an open, Edenic space into a circumscribed arena of erotic ritual that culminates in violence and collusion, its summer idyll suddenly become sinister. In this wind-gusted arcadia, an “innocent” becomes both pursuer and prey, his yearning for a dangerous stranger leading him into a Chabrolian transference of guilt as he conspires to protect a killer, thereby imperiling his own life.

A regionalist attuned to the workings of enclosed communities, Guiraudie observes his lakeside enclave of naked gay men, perturbed by territorial spats and lurking masturbators, with characteristic acuteness and affection. (In a film intent on bodies and topography, the “manscaped” pubes on many of the sunbathers, who run the gamut from abs to flab, seem laughably apt.) Lithe, handsome Franck, bearing an air of superfluity—he drives a discontinued Renault 25 and is between jobs after a stint as a vegetable vendor—returns to his old haunt and immediately befriends an outsider who is his opposite: the older, portly, melancholy, and ostensibly straight logger Henri, clothed and isolated on his own patch of land, where he is nursing his hurt over a recently ended affair. The growing friendship between Franck and Henri—one of the loveliest and most touching descriptions of male amity in cinema—is played out in long takes of digressive conversation, while Guiraudie’s rigorous attention to composition, as in the strong diagonal shot four minutes into the film or his preference for protracted, wide side-by-side two-shots over a conventional shot-countershot breakdown, connects the two men both spatially and emotionally. “I like talking with you,” Henri says simply. Guiraudie’s precisely planned visual organization, in which Franck’s point of view is often intercut with objective shots to heighten ambiguity, does the rest of the telling.

As Henri warns Franck about the lake’s reportedly giant silurus (a kind of catfish), an actual slayer makes his way into this all-male environ. In the distance, behind the oblivious pair, the malign form of Michel, whose taut body and anachronistic mustache and grizzle suggest a Colt Studio fantasy of Tom Selleck, emerges from the water. A smitten Franck pursues the hunky intruder and, on the fourth day, finally has sex with the étranger (who reveals his name only halfway through the film) on the beach. When Stranger by the Lake premiered at this year’s Cannes festival, its alfresco erections and CinemaScope close-ups of cocksucking and cum ensured instant scandal, although the film’s suggestion that danger acts as an aphrodisiac—death as the ultimate culmination of love—should have proven more notorious, so fatigued is its contention. (Though Guiraudie claims the film is about passion jusqu’au bout, Stranger can conversely be read as an allegory of concatenating death wishes or a castigatory tale about the mortal heedlessness of desire.) An abrupt edit segues from sex to death, from a cum shot to a murder, as Franck surveys the lake at dusk and, in a long-held image, witnesses Michel drowning his previous lover. His attraction to the psychopath intensified, Franck becomes complicit in the crime by lying to the inspector investigating the murder. (Is it an intended or inadvertent joke that this pale wraith with the unlikely name of Inspector Damroder resembles the late Eric Rohmer?) As in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975), the gradual dissolution of pattern—for instance, the excision of the expected establishing shot on the ninth day—portends a violent unraveling. Stranger becomes increasingly constricted, nature ever more obscure and ominous, as the two lovers play a cat-and-mouse game in which their dialogue takes on Hitchcockian ambiguity. “And what’d you do with yours?” Franck asks Michel of his former boyfriend, while the killer later dismisses his qualms: “There are two of us. What can happen?”

João Pedro Rodrigues, the Portuguese director with a similar interest in homoerotic fixation and ritual (for instance, O Fantasma [2000]), recently told Guiraudie that Stranger’s generosity of spirit made him “think of a homosexual version of Jean Renoir.” But it is Renoir’s opposite, the chill, geometric Chabrol, whose work the film most resembles. At the end of the French master’s Le Boucher, a schoolteacher who has been complicit with a serial killer stands numbly gazing into a bucolic setting of trees and river. At three key junctures in Stranger by the Lake, Guiraudie places Michel’s visage close and central in the frame, suggesting his murderous dominion, while in the film’s final, barely discernible image, Franck’s face tentatively displaces his lover’s as he stares into the impenetrable darkness, helpless before his fast-approaching fate.

Stranger by the Lake opens January 24 in New York and Los Angeles.

This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of Artforum.