Queer cinema has forgotten about sex. But the brilliant and radical “Stranger by the Lake” doesn’t keep it in its pants. Sex is out in the light and right where we can see it: sucking, fucking, 69-ing, ejaculation, masturbation and penetration shots galore. Just so you know going in.
While we have “Blue Is the Warmest Color” and HBO’s new series “Looking” to thank for putting the “sex” back in onscreen “homosexuality,” these banner works pale next to Alain Guiraudie’s intense, erotic new film, an inky mixture of desire and dread just begging for a queer cinema studies dissertation.
At the center of “Stranger by the Lake” is the young, conventionally handsome Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), who toils away at a secluded cruising hotspot, a lake discreetly folded into a hazy, humid woods. Splayed on the beach or writhing beneath the bush and bramble are male bodies of all shapes and sizes. Lusty gays, Franck among them, take a dip in the water, awaiting the catch of the day before disappearing in twos and threes into the dense trees rimming the lake.
But there’s a new guy in town, a stranger named Michel (Christophe Paou, a dead ringer for 70s Butch Reynolds) who looms along the fray and isn’t here to make friends. Looking for love or something like it in all the wrong places, Franck easily falls for the enigmatic charms of this mustached, butchier daddy-type whose only drive is a quick fuck. “Sex is great, but it doesn’t mean we need to have dinner and spend the night together,” Michel warns the smitten Franck.
Trouble starts the day after Franck and Michel finally do hook-up (an explosively sexy scene that bares all). As a helicopter circles the clearing overhead, Franck returns to the lake the morning after to find it utterly deserted. Word travels fast that the drowned body of a resident cruiser has been found, setting off local hysteria and the arrival of a (likely straight) detective who questions Franck and Michel about the corpse. The victim, we learn, is loosely connected to Michel. And while Franck grows weary of his potentially murderous love object, he can’t resist Michel’s pull.
Like those hasty lakeside hookups, the narrative goes nowhere, with a faintly satisfying climax that quite literally fades into blackness. Guiraudie uses the broad narrative canvas of a (maybe) homosexual killer run amuck to paint a vividly detailed, if far-out portrait of modern gay life where loneliness is the only real monster. The screenplay is also subtly political, especially in a key scene where the intrusive investigator asks Franck why the men would keep on cruising if one of their own had been killed. Franck’s pointed response? “We can’t stop living.”
While the many sex scenes punctuating “Stranger by the Lake” are extremely graphic, Guiraudie’s framing often reduces the participants to mere limbs in the greenery, evoking the notion of how sex, for some, is an out-of-body experience in which we lose, and leave, ourselves entirely. Even the film’s most lush, bucolic shots crackle with dread, as the spindly arms and legs of trees threaten to swallow the characters whole at any point. The water, too, emerges as a metaphor of desire, a placid surface whose shimmery pall barely conceals a roiling darkness.
Unlike “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” the sexy French lesbian romance that took Cannes’ top prize, the explicit sex here never breaks the tone of the film around it. Where Abdellatif Kechiche jarringly married earthly realism with overstylized lovemaking, Guiraudie’s onscreen sex is raw and uncomfortable rather than choreographed, as partners messily flip-flop between positions without the grace of extreme beauties Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux. For Franck and Michel, their sex can be creepy and disorienting. As real sex often is.
With an overall menacing tone peppered by moments of wistful romance, the film understands desire as something ravenous, terrifying and ridiculous. An unsettling provocation about how the danger and the thrill of giving yourself, and your body, over to another person can destroy you completely, “Stranger by the Lake” is the queer cinema we’ve needed all along.
“Stranger by the Lake” hits select theaters on Friday, January 24.