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Killer Cruise: Alain Giuraudie’s Stranger By The Lake (2013) – VOD review

March 13, 2014 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

As a study of gay subculture, this is smart, satirical and sexy. As a thriller, though, it can’t escape the limitations of its chosen genre.

Stranger By The Lake
(Alain Giuraudie, 2013)

The act of cruising is fraught with contradictions – a search for companionship that is all too often conducted in such haste and anonymity its closeness is a mirage. Alan Guiraudie’s film is a smart dissection of that dichotomy, which widens its appeal beyond the ‘gay ghetto’ by the clever application of genre. While it wouldn’t be impossible to make a rom-com about cruising, the erotic thriller makes much more sense. After all, ‘stranger danger’ gets more interesting when the potential victim voluntarily offers himself up to a possible killer.

The story follows Franck, a good-looking but essentially blank guy who spends his days by the titular lake, hoping to hook-up with the similarly lithe Lothario Michel – much to the chagrin of semi-closeted, overweight newcomer Henri, whose love for Franck goes unrequited… even when Franck witnesses Michel drowning his lover. Inevitably, Franck and Michel get together, but then what? This isn’t a relationship with a future – but what is in the cruising world?

It’s the collision of narrative necessity and subcultural ritual that makes Stranger By The Lake a tantalising piece of filmmaking, gaining in symbolic and psychological complexity precisely because it is so conventionally plotted. The lake is a perfect setting for the gay lifestyle – a seductive but deadly magnet around which everybody gathers, all under the glare of the sun, only to dash off in pairs to fuck in secluded glades in the woods.

Make no mistake, this is explicit stuff by mainstream standards (and a corrective to the girls only affair of Blue Is The Warmest Colour, as if French cinema needed to balance its flesh between men and women) but Guiraudie’s eye is as sardonic as it is sensual. There is a gallows wit to scenes of lovers set to start only to realise they’ve used up their condoms on other couplings, while one character – literally standing around with his dick in his hands – becomes a running joke on the impersonality of the cruising scene.

That dichotomy extends both to the plot, and the way Guiraudie films it. There’s an obvious irony that Franck’s lustful pursuit of Michel blinds him to the possibility of a real relationship with Henri, and Guiraudie pitches it equally between indicting Franck’s shallowness and Henri’s self-pity. Really, both have the same tragic flaw – in a place where they can literally have any guy they want, they are fixated on a single, inappropriate choice.

The joke is so cruel that the film – like the characters – cannot leave the lake, with its false promise of life. When dusk falls and everybody goes home, the characters discussing getting together in the evenings but such comfort and conformity is beyond them, and we never see them elsewhere. Instead, we cut: usually to the same shot of the lake’s car park, as Franck pulls up for another day of cruising. It’s a conceit that works on several levels: it heightens the claustrophobia (no mean feat in the open air); it strengthens the symbolism of eternal stasis; and it is a fiendishly simple means of maximising the film’s cinematic sweep on a low budget.

The results are mostly excellent, right up the point where Guiraudie panics about making an art-house erotic thriller. The final stretches are as loopily unconvincing and banally plotted as any sub-Basic Instinct Hollywood soft-porn affair, with a generic inspector on the case and a bloody ending in sight. Arguably, the inspector is meant to be a cliché, an interloper in this insular community, but dramatically it falls dead. Guiraudie tries to restore the film’s unique spell with one of those haunting/inscrutable/annoying/cop-out open endings (delete as applicable), but by then the film has ceased to be a stranger and become altogether more familiar.

Stranger By The Lake is now available on VOD.

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