To call “Stranger by the Lake” erotic would be an understatement: the French drama-thriller is bursting at the seams with sex, simulated and unsimulated. Set solely on a secluded beach, a cruising spot for gay men, it starts when Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) meets the recently single Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao) and strikes up a friendship. Their conversations continue as Franck falls for Michel (Christophe Paou). One night, Franck stays late to meet his crush, only to see him drown a man in the lake and leave like nothing happened.
The horror of the act is immediate: Franck is terrified and devastated. The next day, he chats up Michel anyway and the two commit. Figuring out why he goes back is part of the fun. His feelings for Michel, which are more lust than love, come on strong and leave just as quickly. Their relationship has a quick half-life and doesn’t have the impact that Franck and Henri’s does.
Henri, though, is on the sidelines for most of the movie, acting as a sage observer. In his frankest moment, he tells Franck what he thinks about Michel, “You might be too gaga to see it, but he’s weird.” Director Alain Guiraudie lets the movie’s heart show in scenes like this. What he builds with Franck is a relationship little seen on the big screen and makes this muted tale all the more wrenching.
The warm tone of Franck’s scenes with Michel build a subtle contrast between the two relationships. More than anything, this acute visual sense tells a story all its own. The isolation of the beach, where Franck watches as much as he is watched, sometimes by friends, sometimes not, feels sterile. Even in the woods behind it, where men meet to have semi-anonymous sex, that emotional distance exists. When he’s in the throes of lust, Franck heats the place up with Michel, but with Henri, he cools it down. Both are ill-fated couples. Guiraudie makes no effort to hide this fact.
Everything that happens, happens. The movie’s fly-on-the-wall style is too reserved to be fantastical, even if it is surreal at times. If anything, this is my one complaint: things proceed too easily to be tense. The fates of Franck, Michel, and Henri are telegraphed early on and play out as you would expect. The ending is ambiguous, certainly less predictable, but there’s no doubting its veracity.
What the movie does best is celebrate the male body. It’s showcased from every possible angle, usually in pairs of threes, sometimes two, blending together like oil paints. It’s a beautiful vision of bodies shifting their physical and emotional identities depending on who’s there to follow. Franck does not lust after Henri like he does Michel, and he doesn’t love Michel like he does Henri, so their bodies don’t interact in the same way. The shapes love takes and what its absence means is a potent throughline in “Stranger by the Lake,” one that makes all nervous nail-biting worth it.