|The High Price of Intimacy
Mateo Keegan Burbano
19 October 2019
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Stranger by the Lake (2013)
Stranger by the Lake, or L’Inconnu Du Lac, is a French language erotic slasher film written and directed by Alain Guiraudie.
The film opens with a man parking at a lake where there are a number of cars scattered about. Some men are sunning themselves on the lake’s rock shore. Some of the men are nude. The newcomer strikes up a conversation with one nudist, remarking there’s a good turnout. The turnout is important, because this side of the lake is known as a cruising site for gay and bisexual men.
A warning to anyone thinking about watching the film. There are numerous scenes of graphic, hardcore, unsimulated gay sex. Graying, distended testicles and tiny peeners can be seen in more than half of any shots in the film. If you are uncomfortable watching graphic sex scenes or uncomfortable with watching the physical expression of homosexual love, then you will want to avoid this film.
The film’s lead, Franck, is played by Pierre Deladonchamps. Franck is a recently unemployed young man in his mid-twenties who is listlessly wandering through life. He keeps returning to the lake although he isn’t impressed by the choice of hookup partners. He is content to engage is various sexual trysts with complete strangers but knows he wants something more from a partner. He is quickly drawn to an older man who is always sitting off alone by the lake, fully clothed, and sticking out as not belonging there in a popular pickup site.
The older man is Henri, played with pathos and earnestness by Patrick d’Assumçao. Henri is a local manual laborer, a logger, off work on his summer vacation. Henri tells Franck he used to go to the other side of the lake where the families go until he broke up with his girlfriend. Now he comes to the side where the men are. He readily admits to having had sex with men when he was younger, but he doesn’t identify as gay and is confounded by the idea that there are men like Franck who have never had girlfriends and never had sex with women.
“You seem like a regular guy,” he says to Franck.
Franck continues to have meaningless hookups with strangers but feels himself drawn to two men. In Henri he finds a warmth and friendship. It is easy with Henri because he is non-threatening and there is no risk of physical attraction. In one genuinely heart-warming scene Henri confesses his love for Franck and asks if two men can be lifelong partners, spending their days together, taking meals together, spending nights together in a home they share, even if they are never physically intimate.
The other man Franck is drawn to is the mysterious Michel, played with a glowering masculine intensity by Christophe Paou. Michel is a tall, lithe, swimmer with a porn stache. When men at the lake want to hookup, they enter the tree line and trawl the woods for other men looking to hookup. Some of the men are happy to watch others fuck while they pleasure themselves. Franck follows Michel into the woods but is disappointed when he finds him fucking another man.
So far, the only horrifying thing about Stranger by the Lake is how nonchalantly everyone walks barefoot over, and lie their bare asses on, all the sharp rocks and stones on the beach. But there is something desperate and horrifying in the way Franck interacts with the men at the lake, and how he experiences sex and love. Franck feels a need for romantic intimacy, but he is also attracted to danger. The situation itself, of going to a place known for sex between strangers, is potentially dangerous. During one of Franck’s anonymous hook ups, he goes to a popular spot in the woods with a total Dad-bod stranger. The spot is littered with used condoms and condom wrappers that they have to clear away to make a spot to lie down. The man gets angry when Franck tries to go down on him without using a condom.
“I trust you,” Franck tells him.
“Do you trust everybody,” the man chides him.
The man’s warning is clear beyond just the danger of sexually transmitted disease. Franck’s desire for thrills and intimacy will place him in a danger he will not be able to extract himself from. Having no condoms, the two make do with safe mutual masturbation.
Franck returns to the lake. It is getting late and the lake is empty except for two men swimming. From behind a bush, Franck watches the two men rough housing, taking turns dunking each other under water. The horseplay becomes more aggressive. One man tries to flee while the other actively tries to drown him. The man is caught, forced underwater and held there. After painful, long moments, the surviving man swims to shore alone. It is Michel, the man Franck’s been ogling from afar. Michel casually gets dressed and leaves. It’s nighttime before Franck works up the nerve to come out of hiding and leave.
The next day, he returns to the lake and finds the dead man’s possessions still on the beach. The other men are acting like normal. No one knows what happened. He sits with Henri at Henri’s usual spot. Henri welcomes his company and says he’s always alone because no one but Franck will talk to him. Franck needles him for being unapproachable. He seems to be taking out his stress over the witnessed murder on Henri. Henri tells him he can’t approach any of the other men because of how it would be construed. That would be “cruising.”
The film is filled with beautiful shots of waves moving across the lake and the sound of the water on the shore. The natural beauty is contrasted with men’s naked bodies of all body-types. There is also a barren quality to the surroundings that seems to compliment the emptiness of most of these men’s relationships to one another. It isn’t until forty minutes into the film before any of the characters are named. The film critiques a repressive, homophobic society that pushes gay men to go to such places to find intimacy. Despite this critique, many of the men genuinely enjoy engaging in anonymous sex, and the film does not seem to judge them for doing so.
Michel and Franck soon hit it off. During their first lengthy interaction, Michel asks him if he’s come alone. Franck is both aroused and frightened by the question’s implied threat implied. Michel starts touching him. Although Franck knows Michel murdered the man, he keeps asking what happened to his boyfriend. Won’t he be mad if they see them together? He tests him because he wants Michel honest with him, but also because he’s aroused by the danger of asking such questions. Michel goes down on him, not once mentioning a need for condoms.
Franck tells Henri that he thinks he’s fallen in love with Michel. He’s excited, but he’s also frightened. He goes into the woods with Michel. The Foley artist on the film earns his paycheck during a 69 sequence with some Grade-A slurping noises sound effects. Franck penetrates him without a condom, and then Michel fucks him. He begs him to be gentle. A sex scene this uncomfortably long would be too much in a porno. I had to turn down the volume for fear the evangelicals next door would overhear. The sex scenes, while graphic, are intimately shot.
Franck pulls up to the lake the next day to find the parking area empty. Henri is there watching a police helicopter trawling the area. Over the next few days the other men slowly return but the police presence is still felt and has put many of the men on edge. A police inspector keeps showing up to question Michel and Franck’s relationships to the dead man and to question their alibis for the night of the man’s death.
Franck’s relationship with Michel deepens, although it is limited to their time together at the lake. Michel refuses to spend any time away from the lake with Franck and tells him it’s the limited scope of their relationship which makes it special.
Henri watches their relationship from afar. He tries warning Franck away from him because he can see Michel for what he truly is, a sociopathic predator. Franck brushes off his warnings; he is in love.
Michel becomes more possessive of Franck, and resentful of any time he spends with the other men. Franck was all good with the murdering, but Michel’s insecurities and jealousy is a huge turnoff.
Franck is confronted by the police inspector again. He asks if Franck thinks it’s odd that, two days after finding the drowned body, everyone’s back to cruising.
“We can’t stop living,” Franck explains.
The detective asks how he can be so indifferent about the death of a fellow, young gay man. How he doesn’t care, even if it’s just to care for his own safety. In the police inspector, the film analyzes the response many police forces have to violence in the gay community, that it is largely self-inflicted due to living a supposed high-risk lifestyle.
As the police close in on Michel, Michel becomes more paranoid and more possessive. The film veers into bloodied violence that would not be out of place in the final killing spree of a slasher film. The film’s ending focuses on the animalistic predatory tendencies in some men, but also addresses issues of modern loneliness, isolation, depression, and suicide. The film ends with Michel stalking Franck in the woods at night. Anyone who could save Franck is either gone or killed by Michel. Hours pass before Franck steps out of hiding. Even though he knows he’ll be killed, he has to know if Michel is still there, and he calls out to him. In the end, in the stillness of night, regardless of our sexual orientation, there is nothing many of us would not risk to not feel alone, even if but for a moment.
4.5 out of 5 Flaccid Penises
Stranger by the Lake is currently available to stream on Shudder.