Michel: Are you coming in? We have the whole lake to ourselves.
The first thing one does when one arrives at this tiny little beach somewhere in the south of France, is scan the premises to see what’s on the menu. A dozen or so men of all shapes and sizes are strewn across the sand and rocks, alone or in pairs, and as you assess each one for their worth, each of their heads will turn towards you and do the same. The rules of the beach have never been written down formally but they are understood amongst its select patrons. The beach is for cruising; the woods behind it are for screwing; and clothing is at all times optional. Gay cruising spots just like the one found in Alain Guiraudie’s STRANGER BY THE LAKE, can be found all over the world. The setting may be different but the goals are always the same. The only language being spoken is sex, with love long left tossed to the side to possibly be picked up again at a later date. What one man at this particular beach realizes this one summer is that after having left love alone for so long, he may no longer know what it even looks like.
As if to hint at just how unnatural the comings and goings at this beach are at times, Guiraudie sets STRANGER BY THE LAKE entirely outdoors, often allowing the sun-soaked lake and the wind rustling through the trees to display their natural beauty for long stretches at a time. The film opens on the beach’s makeshift parking lot, a shot that is repeated numerous times throughout the film to signify that another day of cruising has begun, and to demonstrate just how often these men find themselves back in this same place. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) arrives for his first day at the beach this season to much delight. He is young, tight-bodied and beautiful, making him hotly sought after by most people there. He immediately befriends an older man, sitting alone and away from the other men, by the name of Henri (Patrick D’Assumcao). It is almost as if Franck is drawn to Henri but has no idea why. Throughout their time together, the twosome will connect as friends, without any hint of sexual tension. Their pairing is seen as odd by the other men and despite their connection and desire to spend time together both on and off the beach, Franck’s interests lie elsewhere. Not surprisingly, Franck falls for Michel (Christophe Paou), easily the most ruggedly attractive man there.
Franck and Michel are instantly attracted to each other. There is just one small problem; Michel already has a beach boyfriend. The solution to this problem is easier reached than you might think. Michel simply drowns this guy in the lake late one evening when he suspects that everyone has gone home. Michel is wrong though; not everyone had already left the beach for the day. In fact, Franck is still there and he witnessed the entire thing. You might think at this point that Franck would go to the police, in hopes of protecting the lives of the other men at this beach, just in case Michel decides to kill again. Alas, this does not pass. Instead, Franck continues to pursue Michel. Franck’s motivations or rationalization here is not explained, but it is this bizarre turn that makes STRANGER BY THE LAKE so compelling and thought provoking. It can’t just be the physical attraction that makes Franck act so recklessly; there must be more to it and there is. Franck genuinely feels that he is in love with Michel. It is his pursuit of love, and not passion, that allows him to get around what Michel did as just a means to an end in his mind. This disregard for common sense over a person he barely knows, and who barely makes an effort to get to know him on any real personal level, is what begs the question as to whether Franck even knows what love is anymore.
STRANGER BY THE LAKE is a poignant and powerful exploration of the degradation of love in gay society after so many years of anonymous sexual encounters. Public sex where first names are not exchanged is no new act by any means, and not at all specific to the gay community either. All the same, for some gay men, it is as much a part of their lives as eating and sleeping are, and its repeated practice may have impacted the community in ways no one ever saw coming. Like the title suggests, these men are strangers, and as long as they remain strangers, there is no danger of getting hurt emotionally. The physical dangers inherit to the situation (disease or, in this case, a murderer in the midst), remain present but fail to frighten any away. The manner is which Guiraudie presents it all, in addition to being often tense and tittilating, does ask if this isn’t perhaps all a bit strange all around. The tone is never judgmental but his daring approach simply dares the viewer to ask questions they may not want to ask themselves. In doing so, he has made an important contribution to gay cinema and also gives new meaning to the idea of accepting the love we think we deserve.