“Blue Is the Warmest Color” heated up screens last year, receiving much praise and some criticism for its graphic, tastefully lit and photographed sex scenes. Was it art or pornography? Was it both? Does it matter?
Meanwhile, Alain Guiraudie’s “Stranger by the Lake” features much more nudity and graphic sex but doesn’t seem to have gotten anyone hot and bothered. Perhaps audiences are jaded by male nudity and gay sex. Or maybe Guiraudie’s style — static, claustrophobic, detached, and ruthless, not unlike Claude Chabrol or early François Ozon — stifles passion. And then there’s nothing like the presence of death to spoil — or intensify — the pleasures of eros.
Minimal in setting and plot, Guiraudie’s film consists of unemphatically shot and edited near-ritual behavior at one location — a gay cruising spot by a secluded lake. Sexy, innocent Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps, who looks like an odd combination of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Mark Wahlberg) pulls into the parking lot and strolls through the woods to the lake. Nude men, most old and unfit, lounge on the gravelly beach, ogling newcomers. Now and then, some slip off into the woods for anonymous action.
Franck chats with Henri (Patrick D’Assumçao), a potbellied sad sack who sits away from the others. Henri never takes off his clothes, or goes swimming, or ends up in the woods. He says he’s just there to look at the lake, but he really wants someone to talk to. So he chats with happy-go-lucky Franck, about their jobs (Henri works as a logger; Franck used to sell vegetables, now he visits the beach), about sex and loneliness. They become friends, even after Franck spots Michel (Christophe Paou), a guy with the hair, mustache, and body of a ’70s porn star, and it’s off to the woods they go.
The pattern repeats — parking lot, woods, beach, and woods again — but each time Franck and Michel’s lovemaking intensifies, until Franck suggests spending the night together — in other words, commitment. Then a drowned man is discovered and nearly everyone shuns the beach — for two days.
What “Stranger by the Lake” lacks in suspense and back story it makes up for in atmosphere: It’s a subtle exercise in the pathetic fallacy. The woods can seem an idyllic spot when the wind blows through the trees, or a sinister trap when the buzz of flies fills the background. Guiraudie’s stark, oddly moral film works like a Brothers Grimm tale about wandering off the path and meeting the big bad wolf in the forest, except the happily-ever-after part seems far from assured.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.