By Yasmina Tawil
“People who aren’t familiar with this milieu could think this is a kind of science-fiction film.” –writer/director Alain Guiraudie
Of all the films that came out of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival—a remarkably strong year, in retrospect—the one I keep returning to, curiously enough, is from a filmmaker whose prior work was entirely unknown to me at the time. Emerging from a field that included highly anticipated films from Ethan and Joel Coen, Sofia Coppola, Asghar Farhadi, Jim Jarmusch, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Hirokazu Koreeda, Alexander Payne, Roman Polanski, Nicolas Winding Refn, and Steven Soderbergh (to name ten), Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger By The Lake muscled its way onto my must-see list on the basis of what is admittedly a mixed festival dispatch and stayed there until it came to Blu-ray one year later. I’ve since watched it three more times, including a much-welcome repertory screening at my local university, and can easily see myself revisiting it every couple of years until I die—or the disc wears out, whichever happens first.
Part of the attraction for me is that films that deal so directly—and so frankly—with gay male desire aren’t always easy to come by. (It’s also rare for them to get much traction at prestigious festivals like Cannes, where Guiraudie won the Directing Prize in the Un Certain Regard section and Stranger beat out Palme d’Or winner Blue Is The Warmest Color and Soderbergh’s Behind The Candelabra for the Queer Palm, an award whose existence is a welcome sign these kinds of films are no longer getting swept under the rug.) The other part of the attraction is the way Guiraudie takes full advantage of his premise to give the viewer an eyeful of his buff leads, who spend much of the film’s running time partially or completely in the buff.
Since it’s unlikely I’ll be visiting a nude beach in the South of France anytime soon, Stranger By The Lake scratches the same voyeuristic itch as William Friedkin’s Cruising, which steeped itself in New York’s leather bar scene just before AIDS forever altered the playing field. And sure enough, the specter of AIDS haunts this film as well. Drawn to both the idyllic cruising spot that serves as its sole location and Michel (Christophe Paou), the handsome, mustachioed stranger he encounters there, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), the film’s impetuous protagonist, is cavalier about condom use to the point that he’s essentially taking his life in his hands every time he has sex. Then again, he does that anyway, since he continues to pursue the object of his infatuation even after watching Michel drown his lover Pascal (François Labarthe, one of the film’s art directors) late one night. Sure, the guy has an Adonis-like body, but that’s taking amour fou to the extreme.