Watch out. Sex isn't everything. These crucial words are uttered by a character named Henri (Patrick D'Assumçao) in Alain Guiradie's "Stranger by the Lake, an entrancing film that's part psychological thriller, part crime drama and part erotica. Premiering at the same Cannes Film Festival that gave us "Blue is the Warmest Color", this is yet another French film with a rare openness about sexuality. Though while that Palme d'Or winner was framed around a central romance, Guiradie distills his film down to more basic elements.
Like the Henri character, we as the audience are casual observers of the action that goes on in this film. In the film, he spends his days sitting in his favourite spot by a tranquil lake, taking in the summer sun. This is no ordinary lake however, as only mere feet away are a number of men doing the same thing, except stark naked. As we soon find out (in graphic detail), this is a cruising spot for local gay men, with the surrounding woods used for any amount of salacious activities. Henri doesn't participate (he isn't even sure if he's gay), but he has a newfound friend who does - our protagonist Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps). Franck is a young man with a passion for life. This passion leads him to fall in love with the attractive Michel (Christophe Paou). However, as the wise Henri - a well-written and well-acted character with insightful thoughts on the underrated value of boring, but healthy relationships - warns him, he's a potentially dangerous man.
Franck knows this too, as a dark turn of events so blatantly demonstrates. Yet, he can't overcome his intense physical attraction. Apart from his good looks, Michel is also a good kisser and an even better lay. He's almost too good to be true. Of course, in such situations the looks are often deceiving.
As we go deeper into the plot and Franck gets dangerously attached Michel, the film unfolds like a curiously laid-back thriller. Really, how intense can it be with such beautiful scenery? The calm, rippling waves of the lake give you a feeling of serenity and you can almost feel the warmth of the sunlight. At its essence, this is nothing more than a regular nude beach after all. Guiradie recognizes this, lulling us into submission with gorgeous shots, particularly those during the sunset scenes.
There's a dark side to this tale however and that's where his directing and writing skills shine through. The film is filled with mystery, combining elements of urban legend (characters mention a dangerous sea creature lurking in the water) with the vulnerability associated with the presence of strangers. Even more unsettling however, is the film's probing analysis of male psychology. As we witness Franck's actions throughout the film, it's hard not to think of the common stereotype of men caring about sex above all else. It's a cruel indictment, as our lead character embarks on a steady descent into the devil's lair. Guiradie brilliantly uses the woods as his own playground as much as the characters, portraying the foliage as both comfortable alcoves for the men's trysts as well as a last-gasp hiding place from predators. Having already gripped the audience with his mesmerizing visuals and engaging story, it all culminates in a conclusion that sends chills down your spine.
"Stranger by the Lake" is a captivating film that truly gets under your skin and into your mind. Though it sometimes gets too voyeuristic for its own good, there's no denying Guiradie's exceptional craftmanship. This film gives you an experience you won't be forgetting any time soon.