Joining Weekend and Blue is the Warmest Color as the premier examples of 2010s queer cinema – and indeed, one of the best films of 2014 so far – Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake is a haunting, creepy and sexually bold thriller set in a deceptively idyllic gay cruising spot. Something clicks for Franck when he sets eyes on a tanned, handsome and taken stranger named Michel, a connection that remains unaltered when he witnesses Michel drowning his lover in the lake.
Franck’s obsession leads to intimacy with this menacing character, who remains unaware he was being watched at the moment of the killing. As such, Michel’s aura of danger seeps into the veins of the film, given Franck’s submission to a romance that he knows could result in his own death. That the film remains so eerily quiet, without a second of non-diegetic sound even during the credits, certainly adds to this, as does Claire Mathon’s incredible cinematography, which often renders characters as small as ants in an expansive environment that is as picturesque as it can be agoraphobic.
That only available light is used makes it surprising that every shot is as well-realised as it is, and as such the filmmakers are unafraid to plunge the characters into complete darkness; in one instance, only the outlines of Franck’s collarbones are highlighted by a slight glimmer of light in a shot otherwise engulfed in pitch-blackness. Combined with the sound design, the acting and the script, all of which are worked to a very high standard, it all gels incredibly well to give the impression that each moment in the film has been brought to near enough its full potential.
This includes not feeling exploitative in its frank depictions of sexuality or the male nudity that pervades the film. Every actor clearly seems comfortable portraying naturist characters, which definitely adds to this, as it positions the film not only within queer-gaze specifics, but also as a more circumstantial aesthetic: genitals, essentially, are presented as mere aspects of the environment.
As many have pointed out, Stranger by the Lake is Hitchcockian in construct, especially with the morbid curiosity that unifies sex and death. As such, it strikes me as potentially being the kind of movie big Alfred would be making were he alive today. This is bold, riveting filmmaking that was the deserving recipient of the Queer Palm at Cannes last year, as was Guiraudie who won the Best Director award. It will most certainly remain one of the year’s, if not the decade’s, strongest movies, and is recommended watching for any thriller fan who’s sick of the relatively limited scope the genre has maintained over the past several years.
Stranger by the Lake was written and directed by Alain Guiraudie and stars Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou and Patrick d’Assumcao. It lasts for 100 minutes and is a production of Les Films du Worso, arte France Cinéma and M141 Productions. Originally released in 2014; the original title is L’inconnu du lac.