July 30, 2014
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Review: Erotic thriller questions nature of love

"Stranger by the Lake"

Directed by Alain Guiraudie

A flock of birds soars over a serene lake as the camera pans over a dozen of naked men tanning on a beach. One man walks over to another man to kiss him while people swim in the lake. It’s hard to believe, but this tranquil beach becomes the setting of a gruesome murder.

Starring Pierre Deladonchamps and Christophe Paou, “Stranger by the Lake,” a French film written and directed by Alain Guiraudie, explores a surrealist world marked by unbridled sexuality. The film takes the point of view of Franck (Deladonchamps) as he falls for the mysterious and handsome Michel (Paou). The two become entangled in a highly erotic relationship that puts a startling spin on the concept of free love.

The film is set at a remote lake where men come to swing with others, often without even exchanging names or phone numbers. Here, the men enjoy a world separate from their normal lives, where they enjoy a free-for-all of sexual promiscuity and an occasional romance. But once a body is found in the lake, the peaceful destination is turned into a crime scene, sparking questions about whether or not one of the beach-dwellers is responsible.

Guiraudie’s minimalist approach to the cinematography sets an ambiguous tone that does not infer any particular mood. But when the same shots are repeated long enough, they invoke a sense that something isn’t right. At first, the shots of landscape and frank nudity are candid and almost pleasant. But through the context of the homicide that occurs midway through the movie, the plainly framed shots become eerie.

Ultimately, it is the complete lack of a musical score that works with minimalist camerawork to create a feeling of inexplicable urgency. Without any musical arrangements to accent the shots, the film feels empty in the most disturbing way, silent for all but splashes of water and sparse dialogue.

The only breaks from the creepy surrealism are the conversations between Franck and his platonic pal Henri (Patrick d’Assumcao), a fat and awkward logger who has become ostracised from the rest of the beach-goers because of his appearance and inability to get along with the rest of the community. Henri serves as the voice of reason to Franck and isn’t afraid to vocalize his doubts about Franck’s relationship with Michel. Henri proves to be more than a mere conscience, though, doubling as a symbol for the sexless aspect of love.

Whereas Henri is a symbol of psychological relationships, Michel is a symbol of lust and physical allure that tempts Franck from the beginning of the film. Both Henri and Michel compete for Franck’s attention, but Guiraudie avoids falling into a cliche love triangle story. Instead, the audience is challenged by Franck’s dilemma of choosing between two sides of romance. Michel’s reluctance to take his relationship with Franck seriously troubles him, but does not deter Franck from his carnal desires. Ultimately, it is this lust that wins over Henri’s companionship, resulting in a startling and jarring conclusion.

The performances are spot on for each character, but d’Assumcao’s acting is the best in the film. Carrying the most dialogue, he uses an impeccable delivery of his humorous lines to project the underlying cynicism that adds depth to his character. Deladonchamps and Paou also prove their acting skill, the former playing the perfect straight-man role with his well-executed reactions to the unfolding drama around him, and the latter remaining mysterious and unreadable even to the end. As the murder mystery develops, this dynamic between Franck and Michel becomes more integral to the thrill of the film.

“Stranger by the Lake” is ultimately a commentary on the volatile nature of sexuality and how it can possess an individual. But Guiraudie provides a microcosm of eroticism in order to challenge the audience, as well. In a world of sexual anarchy, “Stranger by the Lake” asks the viewer what side of romance he or she would choose, be it the safety of companionship or the volatile sexual allure.