Director: Alain Guiraudie
Set around a French lake over the course of two weeks in high summer, anonymous but familiar faces all become embroiled when a young cruiser is killed in the lake. Witness to the crime, Franck (de Ladonchamps) becomes obsessed with the killer (Paou), aware of the danger of this violent man but fascinated by this risk. Despite the warnings and advice from an older man he befriends (d'Assumçao), he covers for his new lover to the police, alerting the killer that Franck may know more than he is letting on.
It almost feels like a stock cautionary tale about the dangers of cruising. Even though Guiraudie takes no judgement of the actions of the cruisers, he underlines with a thick felt tip the reasons why cruising is a dangerous pursuit. Even though the characters see each other every day, barely anybody speaks to anyone else and nobody knows who these people are, who at moments they become very close to. By deliberately taking themselves to secluded spots, to experience each other one on one, they are placing themselves in extremely vulnerable positions, where anything could (and indeed does) happen and any witnesses would probably not tell. With the social shame that comes with cruising, its participants refuse to let their encounters creep into their normal lives and so their identities become sacrosanct, even to the point of letting a crime go unreported.
The three leads deliver great performances, as characters entwined with each others' demise, as well as islands by themselves whose lives and external motivations we never see. We can only guess at what Franck's life is away from the lake, but every day we see him return like clockwork, with the same routine playing out over and over. It's unclear if the lake is situated near anywhere with a gay scene, but the lake appears to serve that function for its characters. In fact, the lake is so embroiled with the story that it becomes another character in itself. Bathed in glorious sunlight, the water glistens behind all of the scenes, giving an unusual brightness to such a dark thriller. And played out against the soundtrack of wind in the trees and water against the shore, the whole film feels sodden with the laziness of summer, with nearly all the action played out seated or lying on the shore.
As a gay man myself, this was a fascinating film. Its 18 certificate is well deserved and I can't help but wonder how effective it would be for a wholly heterosexual audience as a result. Playing out like an Antonioni classic, it certainly has widespread appeal for the arthouse audience, even if more broadly it would limited to that niche group of gay films; but at least this would be a sterling addition to the "Gay & Lesbian Interest" category on Netflix, which is currently populated with cheap and almost insulting fluff. Stranger By The Lake deserves your time, as well as a wider audience than it will get, but with its recognition at Cannes and its international release, I hope this will lead to further similar releases from this brilliantly bold director, before the mainstream snaps him up.