Stranger by the Lake review: a cautionary tale about bad boys

Stranger by the Lake yellow light Christophe Paou Pierre Deladonchamps

As an exercise in style, this minimalist noir erotic thriller is pretty cool. But it loses its way somewhere around the midpoint and never quite finds it again.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

The guys I like are always taken,” laments handsome Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) to his new pal, the much older sad-sack Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao); the two have drifted into a comfortable friendship at the idyllic lakeside where both men are spending their summer vacation. It’s guys-only at this secluded part of the lake, a cruising spot for gay men, and Franck, from afar, has his eye on the bronze demigod Michel (Christophe Paou: The Affair of the Necklace), who of course appears to have paired off with someone else. But, perhaps, not permanently… so could Franck have a shot after all? As an exercise in style, writer-director Alain Guiraudie’s minimalist noir is pretty cool: the film never gets farther from the lakeside than the parking area through the good-for-cruising woods, and Franck’s erotic adventure with the inscrutable Michel — whom Franck knows is a very dangerous man even before Franck ever speaks to him — is utterly unembellished by any sort of filmmaking frills: there’s no soundtrack, no tricksy camerawork, nothing to detract from the disaster we presume is headed Franck’s way as he lets his desire get the better of him. As an emotional thriller, however, the film left me uncomfortable in a way I don’t think it intends. Because while this is clearly a story sympathetic to gay men, one that is frank about homosexuality and homosexual sex to the point of being almost unnecessarily pornographic about it, it also comes across as an indictment of the more salacious aspects of the “scene,” such as the anonymity of cruising. For all the real sex onscreen, Stranger by the Lake isn’t sexy: desperate loneliness is the primary pitch of the film, and even that’s fine: lots of people of every orientation use random sex with strangers as a way to cope, often unsatisfactorily, with loneliness. But it sometimes veers into near parody of “gay lifestyle” cautionary tales. Maybe that would be okay, too. It feels to me, though, that Guiraudie loses his way somewhere around the middle of the film and never quite finds it again.

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