What’s worse: the fear of death or the fear of being alone? And what happens when the latter is greater than the former? This is the question examined so tacitly by Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake, where Guiraudie’s simple, minimalist approach gives center stage to logic-defying spectacle. Honestly, it’s these kinds of movies that make me wonder why humans act the way they do, especially when faced with choices that could affect their own mortality.
The film is almost stageplay-like in its delivery, focusing solely on a beach, the woods surrounding it, and the parking lot below. No scenes take place outside of these three settings, and it’s within these confines that our love – or is it lust? – story unfolds. Fresh-faced Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) stands in for our innocence, while rough-looking Michel (Christophe Paou) represents the danger, the excitement, and the event that a new romance may bring. Also on this beach is Henri (Patrick D’Assumçao), the voice of conscience balancing the two.
To some, the events in this film will seem completely bohemian and hedonistic – the cruising men meet on the beach, often without even exchanging names or phone numbers, and go off to the woods for more secluded encounters, which are often watched by an unrelated third party. Franck gives in easily to these urges, but starts obsessing over Michel, who’s seen with another man. Soon, he’s stalking the beach, wondering if Michel’s ever going to show up, even after he sees Michel commit a horrible act upon his lover.
This lack of logic or regard for personal safety tends to take me straight out of movies. Yes, I understand that suspension of disbelief is required, and I understand that this is not an American movie. But the minute Franck witnesses the event that changes everything for everyone on the beach, the film seems to divide itself into a heart-versus-head confrontation. Franck knowingly becomes an accomplice of sorts to the person he most desires, burying his knowledge of what Michel has done in order to have even a remote shot at being with him.
Yet, how far will Franck go to prove his perceived love for Michel? They never go home with each other, nor share meals; all of their interaction is strictly limited to the beach and its immediate surroundings, and the relationship seems more wrought out of lust and the aforementioned fear of loneliness rather than love. Franck, though, pursues this fantasy of a relationship to its ambiguous end, even at the risk of his own life.
It’s this kind of act that makes me feel that Stranger by the Lake is full of an emptiness that is only underscored by its superficial appearance. There is absolutely no music whatsoever in this movie, with only nature’s sounds and the actors’ voices being heard. We only see the kinds of people they purport to be in public, without giving any glimpse or insight to what drives anybody. The only real moments in the film, at least to me, are those shared platonically between Franck and Henri; there’s an honesty and a soul there, and it’s a little heart-rending at times, especially when we find out what Henri’s situation is and how he’s dealing with it.
Henri is the most human of the characters, willing to admit his faults and see each situation as it is; Michel’s got his own secrets and Franck’s too wrapped up in the mystery that is Michel. Guiraudie tries to wrap us up as well, but he keeps us at arm’s length, much like Michel does to Franck. In between the explicit sex and the unmatched passion between Franck and Michel, there’s nothing much anchoring Stranger by the Lake in the reality it believes itself to show.