On a trip to a Cancun resort a year or so ago, I was startled by the secluded and pristine milieu that I had plundered upon. A vacation of this sort sees the shackles loosen with expected social mores operating under means of suggestion rather than requirement. That’s the sort of milieu that Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake is set in. Men meet at a secluded lakeshore for nude sun-bathing and swimming. The surrounding forest provides ample space for these men to take part in their daily fuck sessions until they return to the sunny visage of the lake. The process is a rinse and repeat until sunset, with everyone involved relishing in their own uninhibited paradise. That’s until a little bit of murder gets in the way.
Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is the vessel that introduces the utopia to the audience. He probes the lakeshore from the waters, determines his next conquest, and eventually becomes a staple of the community. Henri (Patrick d'Assumçao), serving a self-imposed exile from the majority of the cruising men on the lakeshore, is befriended by Franck. The two relish in conversation. It also affords the audience the opportunity to see what Franck is like outside of the boiling sex caldron that defines the lakeshore and outlying forest. Their conversations are eventually hindered by Franck’s intensifying obsession over Michel (Christophe Paou), a burly, mustache-donning mass of hyper-masculinity.
Passion overwhelms romance between the two, as Michel and Franck embark on some pretty graphic sexual exploits. To his credit, Guiraudie doesn’t shy away from the images. The matter-of-fact presentation is somewhat jarring, though it’s in his method - the composed framing and mise-en-scène that provides the film with a particular type of elegance. My difficulty with the film stems from Guiraudie’s tight stylistic compositions not befitting the pulpier aspects of Stranger by the Lake’s narrative. There’s clearly logic to Guiraudie’s style, particularly when compared to William Friedkin’s Cruising. Cruising's a film met with a significant backlash upon its release, showed a gay culture as a toxic environ - though those accusing the film of this worldview were ignoring that it’s a film told through the eyes of a heteronormative male infiltrating a foreign culture. With Stranger by the Lake, the aforementioned vessel is very much ingrained in the culture and therefore sees the world as one of pristine qualities, to the point that even murder has no effect on his perception of his culture. Yet the culture here - stripped of its sexual context - is so overwhelmingly hedonistic that it muddles attempts at dramatic nuance or an understanding of Franck’s desire for Michel. Tension is derived from style, which while elegant, isn’t enough to direct the film toward any meaningful or climatic conclusion.
Already lauded as a landmark in queer cinema, my take on Strangers by the Lake appears to be in the minority. Unfortunately, the immaculate craft simply doesn’t atone for its thin thematic inquiries. For queer cinema that manages to meld a stylistic flurry with broad social concern I’ll look to Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together.