It’s understandable that Alain Guiraudie won the best director of Un certain regard at Cannes this year, since for the most part L’inconnu du lac (Stranger by the Lake) is a very tight piece of work, effectively exploring the time and place of a single location and milieu, charting the uncertainties that blossom as a new relationship deepens, unfussily depicting the mores of a gay lakeside cruising ground, and building with a skillful slow-burn to a long final shot of excellent tension.
Since it occurs at the end of the film’s second day, it’s giving little away to reveal that handsome young Franck observes a murder at dusk (in another remarkably long, tense shot). Much of the rest of the film is a dance of avoidance, denial, and pure physical attraction between Franck and his new lover, which plays as it might between any new couple slightly wary of giving too much away, except here the stakes are much higher.
The other part of the film’s project is a depiction of this very particular place. We arrive each day in turn with Franck (the film confines itself exclusively to the lake and its environs) and gradually get to know a few of the customs of the cruising ground, along with some of the regulars (the most prominent being the harmless podge who wanks in the woods – his function is no more than comic relief but he’s quite funny enough to justify his presence). Most effectively, the banality of the opening shot – cars parked haphazardly at the edge of the woods – becomes an important signifier through repetition, depending on which cars are, or are not, there.
Guiraudie’s camera (under DP Claire Mathon) repeatedly turns itself skyward, to the treetops, the lowering sun, and ominous clouds, or descends to catch the noonday or evening light on the waves in gorgeous abstract compositions. These apparently empty shots too gain power through accretion, transitions of afternoon to evening clearly and beautifully delineated to capture the sameness of those lazy, identical summer vacation days. The blazing sunlight and lush greenery, however, give way come nightfall to the startling beams of headlights and the sinister blackness of the woods.
One may as well mention also that Guiraudie does not shirk on the main point of the place. Most of the cast and extras are naked most of the time and there’s a healthy amount of love-making, occasionally explicit though never solely for titillation, and a lengthy coupling between the main pair is shot and cut to rank with the most convincing sex scenes in cinema (they also get a couple of nice romantic moments in crepuscular silhouette on the beach).
Aside from the comic wanker, however, the two main supporting characters are also a little problematic. The spidery police inspector (a perfect Jérôme Chappatte) who pops up with amusing unexpectedness seems to have a bugbear about the apparent callousness of these people; his comments and disbelief at the lake’s habitués’ easy return to routine mere days after the death of “one of your own” is meant presumably to demonstrate how even an astute and observant outsider may not fully understand the workings of this community, but comes off at best as stating the obvious, at worst as uncountered moralizing which thus takes on a tinge of directorial comment (the question is: is it ok to take the stand that one dude’s as good as another and if some dude got killed, so what?)
The other significant character is the lonesome, fat-bellied Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), sitting a little removed from the main cruising ground each day. Franck starts to chat with him on the first day and a rather sweet friendship develops. Henri too is an outsider, with no interest in picking up men, and although he does not judge, his sincere assumption that most of those here have wives or girlfriends at home, and are just homo on the side from time to time, is an almost unbelievable anachronism. The real problem, however, is that the finale reveals his presence to be most useful as a device to facilitate the film’s denouement, in a display of character motivation that is far more familiar from fiction than from real life.
A couple of other instances of motivation require a pinch of salt also: this is an astonishingly foolhardy place to commit a murder, a place full of heads ever-ready to turn and look, and where searching eyes prowl the woods. The act can be read as a spur-of-the-moment decision, but the lack of character development in the perpetrator (quite the opposite, in fact, in the final scene, as what few implied shadings are stripped away to reveal a basic bogeyman) gives no clue; likewise Franck’s willingness to put himself in danger, at first in general, and later in a specific replay of what he witnessed, requires some indulgent suspension of disbelief.
That said, Pierre Deladonchamps’ performance is spot-on, proverbially young, dumb and full of cum, with active eyes, bright and readily nervous, that convey the thought processes, but suggest that they’re nonetheless not too profound. And as the object of his lust, dashingly mustachioed Christophe Paou is a convincing-enough hunk of meat to make the blind attraction wholly believable. The flaws are minor: these attractive performances and touches of semi-absurd humour, presented with an impressive control of pacing, time and place, and the no-nonsense handling of the whole cruising scene, are more than enough to paper over a few cracks.
AFI FEST festival film page: L’inconnu du lac
Director: Alain Guiraudie
Screenwriter: Alain Guiraudie
Producer: Sylvie Pialat
Cinematographer: Claire Mathon
Editor: Jean-Christophe Hym
Cast: Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou, Patrick D’Assumçao, Jérôme Chappatte, Mathieu Vervisch, Gilbert Traina