Former vid installation artist Philippe Grandrieux bounces back from his muffed second feature, “A New Life” (2002), with the powerful metaphysical essay “A Lake.” Closer in look and tone to his uncompromising debut, the 1998 serial-killer chiller “Sombre,” this tale of a family invaded by a mysterious stranger in an unnamed Nordic-like landscape is destined for almost no audience beyond festivals and will send many viewers racing for the exit. But it confirms Grandrieux as a true original, up there somewhere with filmmakers like Bela Tarr.
Opening sequence of Alexi (Dmitry Kubasov) hacking away at a tree in the frozen north — pic was actually shot near Zurich — establishes the up-close, intensely physical feel of the movie. Taking solo credit for the first time on the cinematography, Grandrieux uses the camera as a direct expression of his characters’ emotions — sometimes confused (out-of-focus images), sometimes loving (extreme closeups), sometimes murky (lugubrous lighting).
Alexi, who’s also an epileptic, lives with his sister, Hege (Natalie Rehorova), mother Liv (Simona Huelsemann), father Christiann (Vitaly Kischenko) and baby brother Johannes (Arthur Semay) in a wooden house in a snow-covered forest near a lake. Across the lake one day comes Jurgen (Alexei Solonchev), a stranger who just says, “I’ve come to cut wood.”
With almost Wagnerian fatalism, Jurgen and Hege finally kiss by a waterfall, observed from afar by Alexi, who then goes AWOL and is rescued from a frozen death by Jurgen. The only question then is whether the lovers will eventually desert Alexi and the family.
As in “Sombre,” Grandrieux sometimes tests the patience of his audience to the limit, as both the lensing and story drift in and out of obscurity. But the film always has a living pulse of its own, with an almost tactile soundtrack of dripping water, rain on leaves and forest sounds that complements the not-so-suppressed passions onscreen.
A magical moment of emotional release comes at the 70-minute mark when music enters for the first time: Hege singing the yearning “Mondnacht” (By Moonlight), from Schumann’s Op. 39 song cycle (with Rehorova herself supplying voice), in a sequence that betrays her true feelings to Alexi.
Use of a largely Russian cast gives the film an emotional heft European actors couldn’t have matched. Their French dialogue sounds painful, but is spare in the extreme. Locations have a chilly isolation and simple majesty that underline pic’s semi-mythic slant.