Is Stranger By The Lake an allegory for AIDS? Is it the latest ode to Alfred Hitchcock? Is it an opportunity to see a lot of French taint without buying the latest movie from Treasure Island Media?
Like Hitchcock, and like every gay porn ever, Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger By The Lake doesn’t spend its energy on back story or character motivation: everything is shown in a present tense of a nebulous past, every angle is wide and seemingly idyllic. The movie is set somewhere in rural France, at a rocky, aquamarine beach where men cruise for other men. The surrounding community seems to understand implicitly that their beach is divided along hetero and homo lines, but Franck, the protagonist, is the only man who asserts himself as gay in the movie. The word gay, like the word AIDS, is still a four-letter word that dare not speak its name here.
Guiraudie litters his sunny, sparse beach with visual repetition—a red hatchback that no one drives, Franck’s green towel, the balding voyeur masturbating in his dowdy white shorts, the tanned and mustachioed and glistening Michel emerging alone from the waters. Spoiler alert: the single close-up of the movie is of Franck’s lithe, hairless body as he cums, after asking his anonymous partner to kiss him (“I’m coming—kiss me!”).
When they separate, Franck looks down on the lake at nightfall and the movie begins to feel like a Hitchcock thriller. There is no ominous music and the camera is stationary and positioned so far away from the action that maybe nothing happened.
Honestly, maybe nothing did. I’m sure I just imagined that. They were just playing around, right? I mean, nothing bad ever comes out of anonymous hook-ups. This isn’t a PSA.
Then the red hatchback disappears, then we learn that Franck and Michel both hate condoms, then a helicopter appears, then a heterosexual detective dressed in his best Katharine Hepburn drag begins to ask a lot of questions. Franck starts to fall in love, too, but Michel insists their attraction is solely based on the mystique of their anonymous but public sex. The detective hones in on Franck, too, and the movie really starts to drive home.
The final version of Stranger By The Lake is a little more than an hour and half, but the first cut was two hours and fourteen minutes. Guiraudie omitted a lot of dialogue and a lot of sex, and while the film is still very personal to him, the American version has a chronology that feels elliptical and tense. He originally wanted to hire porn stars but found their acting to be lacking. He wanted to film the sex scenes as more graphic but the extras refused to have sex without condoms. He cast Christophe Paou as Michel because he looks like Tom Selleck. Michel is his idea of a sex god.
The movie dances with sex and death, and with myriad symbols of both. It isn’t a proselytizing op-ed about gay sex in public domains or about anonymous, bareback sex between men. Alain Guiraudie says it’s a love story between two men. If people are murdered, if communities are destroyed, what’s love got to do with it?
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