As film evolves, so too does its handling of gay themes and characters. Where they were once buried deep beneath suggestion and allegory, now their stories can break into the mainstream or garner international acclaim. European cinema seemed to catch onto this long before American cinema did, and hence have gained a bit more ground, as proven by Alain Guiraudie's award-winning new film 'Strangers By The Lake', one of the more unusual films you'll see this year.
Every day during this particular summer, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) visits a lake hidden within thick bush somewhere in France. One side of the lake is visited by families, but the other side, this side, is a renowned gay cruising spot. Gay men spend some time sun-baking on the beach, then wander into the bush to find one another for a few hours. Franck has had his eye on Michel (Christophe Paou), a dark, mysterious swimmer. One night, Franck hangs back to catch Michel's attention, and to his horror, sees his crush do something unexpected and terrifying. With Michel showing more interest in him, Franck has to decide between what is right and what his desires tell him.
While most gay films make the sexuality of its characters feel like a bit of a novelty, 'Strangers By The Lake' approaches the subject with such cold subjectivity that the novelty almost completely disappears. Something about Guiraudie's approach to the film seems documentary-like, the camera acting as a detached voyeur to the unusual phenomenon of gay cruising. The actions of these men (blessedly ordinary men) occur in full daylight, nothing hidden or masked by cinematic tricks. It's startling initially, but slowly becomes as fascinating as a nature documentary, and in a very good way. The film is set entirely around the lake, never moving to a different location, following Franck's visits day after day. It's a brave decision, and one that pays off, helping to establish a considered and ultimately oppressive rhythm that builds the film towards its explosive conclusion. Claire Mathon's cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, considered and beautifully framed. As a piece of technical filmmaking, 'Strangers By The Lake' is a tremendous achievement, and proves the talent of everyone behind the camera.
Holding the film together is the subtle and clever narrative of Franck and Michel, as the film goes from an observation of cruising culture to an intricate murder-mystery. Pierre Delandonchamps is tremendous as Franck, a young man enjoying the abandon of the situation before being pulled into Michel's orbit and clearly getting in over his head. He charts the descent of the film beautifully. Christophe Paou gives a dangerous, intoxicating performance as Michel. As an audience, it's impossible not to be charmed by him, but like any animal of prey, there's a danger behind his eyes threatening to emerge, and when it finally does, it does so with cold clarity. Also terrific is Patrick d'Assumcao as Henri, a heterosexual middle-aged man Franck befriends, who simply sits next to the lake by himself every day. Henri takes a vested interest in Franck, and his grumpy yet warm relationship with him is the pull against Michel's allure. Henri can see that something isn't right about this relationship, but rather than hamming it up, d'Assumcao approaches the situation with tremendous subtlety.
There are moments where the film can be quite shocking.
And then there's the sex. Rather than using clever angles to simulate the sex in the film, Guiraudie chooses to film them as actual sex scenes, the cast engaging in the acts on camera. There's both positives and negatives to this. On one hand, it fits beautifully with the documentary quality of the film, and when handled well, enhances the film and the performances. None of the sex is shot to be arousing or artistic, but simply presented as they are. On the other hand, there are moments where it can be quite shocking, that realisation that what you're seeing is an actual sex act, and often, those moments come when least expected or necessary. It's the one part of the film that can occasionally feel like a gimmick, and while only slightly lessening the impact of the film, it does lessen it nonetheless.
At Cannes this year, Alain Guiraudie was awarded Best Director (Un Certain Regard) and 'Strangers By The Lake' won the Queer Palm award. It's a reflection of what an exciting and accomplished piece of work the film is. There's no attempt to hide the themes behind hokey novelty, or to dull it down for the sensibilities of a heterosexual audience. There's also no pandering to a gay audience with pretty boys and techno music (which seems to be the norm). 'Strangers By The Lake' is what it is, and it is whatever it decides it want to be: a fascinating character study that builds to a nail-biting thriller, and a fascinating meditation on sex and intimacy.