In recent years, William Friedkin’s CRUISING has gone from loathed obscurity to genuine cult classic, gaining fandom, retrospectives and even an oddball “making-of” cinematic exercise in the form of James Franco’s INTERIOR – LEATHER BAR. In the 34 years since that film’s release, the world of anonymous gay cruising has come out of the dimly-lit shadows and into common cultural knowledge – hell, most of my straight friends are aware of “Grindr,” the “social” phone app used ostensibly for hooking up with someone at the closest convenience. (In truth, apps like this are used primarily for awkward conversations consisting of “sup” and “hot” and the occasional photo exchange.)
The sordid land of actual cruising on a secluded beach in France provides the setting for STRANGER BY THE LAKE, a French thriller from Alain Guiraudie that won a directing prize at Cannes last year and is currently playing theaters in the United States, and this beach turns out to be just as sexually uninhibited, anonymous and, in the end, deadly as the back rooms and overpasses as anything in Friedkin’s tale.
Peirre Deladonchamps stars as Franck, a young, attractive, openly gay man who returns to the secluded cruising spot for the first time in a summer, a desolate area by a lake that at first just seems like a nude all-male beach. The woods behind the beach, however, give enough seclusion for strangers to interact in a more intimate manner, even if they are occasionally watched by a chronic masturbator whose unattractive appearance keeps him on the viewer side of the voyeur’s window.
The object of Franck’s affection is Michel, a swarthy, Tom Selleck-circa-1982 fellow played by Christophe Paou. Michel’s terribly jealous boyfriend (or at least fuck buddy), however, chastises Franck for communicating with him, and Franck ends up spending more time with Henri, a sullen, loafish man who has recently separated from his wife, and who spends his time sitting alone on the rocks near the beach.
That is, until Franck, staying late one night, happens upon Michel drowning his lover in the lake. Telling nobody of this, Franck instead begins a sexual relationship with Michel, one that, despite Franck’s attempts, doesn’t extend beyond the boundaries of the cruising grounds. Meanwhile, Henri’s affections and concern for Franck becomes more clear, but his schlubby appearance mixed with his complete lack of self-confidence (he rarely takes off his shirt and is constantly wrapping his arms around his chest) is barely regarded by the self-absorbed Franck as anything but another social outlet.
Eventually, of course, the body is discovered and a police inspector begins asking questions, but little changes in the lives of the men who inhabit the cruising spot, even if that spot claimed one of their own. Things end up going very badly for pretty much everyone involved (this isn’t much of a shock – Michel is clearly established as an unrepentant killer) and Guiraudie concludes the film with a tense climax that should rankle even the more jaded moviegoer.
By setting the film entirely within the cruising grounds, Guiraudie creates a world that encapsulates the culture beautifully, a world of sordid glances, casual physical intimacy and complete power to create a new identity, even if your old habits and emotions will still come through in the end. While the characters have names, even those are suspect, as we get little idea as to the lives outside of the cruising grounds that these characters lead.
The cruising grounds may look like a land of pure sexuality, and there’s no question that STRANGER is unrestricted in its portrayal of sex (to the point that some pearl-clutching writers have opined that the sex is “too real,” as though that’s a thing). But it’s not sex without meaning – these are men looking for companionship and identity in whatever form it comes, and even that sex often comes with the same awkwardness as any verbal social interaction.
It’s to Deladonchamps’ credit that Franck, an ostensibly stupid and incredibly self-involved character, manages to be so charismatic, and you can’t help but watch him get involved with Michel despite all of the danger he puts himself into, both by Michel being a murderer and by having bareback sex with a stranger. It’s a fearless performance, and not just because he ejaculates on screen.
Beautifully shot, completely scoreless as to rely on natural sound and filled with fascinating characters (and plenty of nudity), STRANGER BY THE LAKE is a compellingly eerie tale of identity, self-loathing, death and sex in a world we rarely see portrayed in film. Sure, it’s technically a “gay film” in that gay sex is what the characters are there for, but it’s still a hell of a nerve-wracking ride, and one that no self-respecting film fan should pass on. Ideally, see it with someone you’ll be able to talk to about the character motivations afterwards. Because you’ll want to.
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