The secluded beach bordering an aqua-colored expanse of water is the stage for both death and desire in “Stranger by the Lake,” the career-best feature of Gallic scribe-helmer Alain Guiraudie (“The King of Escape”). Though it contains explicit scenes of gay sex, this is essentially an absorbing and intelligent exploration of queer desire spiced up with thriller elements after one of the studly nudists goes missing. Shot in lush, deceptively serene widescreen tableaux, this improbable cocktail makes for entrancing viewing, though the sight of ejaculating members will make it an extremely hard sell theatrically.
Set during summer, “Lake” opens at the titular cruising location — one it wisely never leaves, creating an almost Aristotelian unity of time, place and action — as the handsome Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) parks his car, walks to the beach, strips and goes for a swim. While in the water, he notices Henri (Patrick D’Assumcao), a portly, middle-aged man, sitting far removed from the other, all-male and often naked sunbathers. Franck joins Henri for some small talk before abruptly interrupting their exchange to follow the muscular, mustachioed Michel (Christophe Paou) into the nearby woods.
The main triangle of the film is thus quickly and efficiently established, as Henri becomes Franck’s regular conversational partner over the next few days and Michel becomes his object of desire, though Michel initially keeps busy in the bushes with another man (Francois Labarthe, also one of the pic’s art directors and costume designers).
Through Franck’s casual conversations with Henri, who is divorced and somewhat old-fashioned, and hedonistic sex fiend Michel, Guiraudie explores the differences — both in general and specifically for gay men — between friendship, companionship and intellectual bonds on the one hand, and sex and physical connection on the other. Franck, who finds himself midway between the two extremes, likes to converse with Henri but would never consider sleeping with him, while he desires Michel physically to an irrational extent. Indeed, after having witnessed Michel drown his previous sex mate at nightfall in the lake, Franck is taken aback but not scared away; the danger only serves as a further turn-on.
Sex and death have of course been closely connected for gay men since the onset of AIDS, and the men here do have unprotected sex — perhaps because they find themselves in the heat of the moment, but also out of a possible longing for extreme intimacy. If Franck is attracted by the potential danger that Michel represents, it suggests on a more metaphorical level that a close connection to anyone comes at the price of at least partial abandon to the other and the unknown. Franck does suggest on several post-coital occasions that he and Michel go for a drink or meal, offers that the other man constantly refuses (“Just because we have sex doesn’t mean we need to have dinner”).
Thankfully, Guiraudi’s meditation on sex, compatibility and the problems and potentially high price of (gay) couplehood arise organically from the material, and audiences looking for a more traditional, narrative-driven film are well served once the police turn up after the body of Michel’s drowned lover washes ashore.
Although some of the sex scenes were shot with body doubles, they remain in keeping with Guiraudie’s commitment to photographic realism; Claire Mathon’s beautifully composed widescreen lensing regularly recalls Tom Bianchi’s Fire Island Pines Polaroids, among other influences. The proximity of the characters’ naked bodies finds a clear parallel in the underlying theme of needing to drop all facades in order to find a true and lasting bond.
Although “Stranger by the Lake” tackles serious and complex issues, Guiraudie keeps things extremely straightforward in narrative terms and also injects moments of humor, notably with a couple of supporting players, including a stalkerish nudist-voyeur. Casting of little-known thesps further reinforces the pic’s realism, as do the lensing and ace soundwork, which subtly imply the passage of time over the course of each of the several days during which the story unfolds.