The lake in Alain Guiraudie's Stranger by the Lake is gorgeous — aquamarine, pristine, surrounded by pebbly beaches and dense woods. Families cluster on the far side of it, but on the side we see, there are only men. It's a gay cruising spot, frequented by mostly nude sunbathers and swimmers, many of whom come here often enough to know each other by sight if not by name.
Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is a handsome, slender, 30-something regular who turns a lot of heads as he heads for the water, but he's relaxed enough that, after a bit of swimming, he strikes up a conversation with Henri (Patrick d'Assumcao), a pudgy middle-aged fellow he doesn't know. Henri sits apart from the rest of the pack, claiming to be disinterested in anything but solitude and fresh air.
Theirs is a friendly, entirely platonic encounter — just two guys talking about jobs, and whether the lake is really home to a 15-foot catfish. But as they talk, Franck eyes other men ambling up to the woods alone or in pairs for what will clearly be less platonic encounters. When a rugged-looking guy (Christophe Paou) with a Tom Selleck mustache heads for the tree line, Franck excuses himself and follows.
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Other filmmakers might leave to your imagination what goes on in those woods. Not writer-director Guiraudie, who's ventured into erotic territory, both hetero- and homo-, in such films as The King of Escape and No Rest for the Brave; he makes explicit a fairly Kama Sutric display of what men can do with men with other men watching.
What he captures — and what the men involved quite evidently want — is an environment where physical intimacy is coupled with social isolation. Anonymous sex, observed and practiced in the now, without entanglements or any thought of the future.
And just how little future there is for at least one coupling becomes clear a few hours later, when the sun sets and the beach is deserted. Franck watches from a shadowed spot in the woods — spying two swimmers in the middle of the lake, horsing around ... and then not. One man is pushed underwater and doesn't resurface; the other swims to shore, gets dressed, looks around to make sure he's not been observed, and leaves.
By this point, Stranger by the Lake has become a psychosexually intriguing blend of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window and William Friedkin's Cruising — one in which sex gets intertwined with murder, fear battles desire, and the police discover that voyeurs don't necessarily make good witnesses if no one ever exchanges names or phone numbers.
Franck's two lakeside relationships — one involving conversation, the other sex — get tangled in harrowing ways as a police inspector (Jerome Chappatte) raises questions the film pointedly chooses not to answer: What does it say about the spot's regulars that two days after a murder, everything's back to normal? Where's the concern for the drowned man? For each other? For their personal safety? And why should a potentially lethal silence be so universally embraced by this marginalized community?
"We have to go on living," says Franck, even as his actions compromise his own chances of doing that.
"You have," observes the inspector, "a funny way of loving each other." An indictment, clearly, although the film suggests there's more complexity to the intersection of danger and desire in this disconnected community than outsiders will ever be able to see.