The dance between lust, sex, violence and death is deeply rooted in cinematic history.
In Alain Guiraudie’s sixth feature film fiery passions meet the darkest and most permanent of fates.
There is a certain willingness to flirt with danger in Stranger by the Lake, which equally tells a story of misguided passion and clouded judgement when one summer Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) on the shores of a secluded lake, a local cruising spot for men becomes infatuated with the stranger Michel (Christophe Paou). Knowing he has entered a potentially dangerous liaison, reason and passion are set against one another to determine Franck’s fate.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat and Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men remain two of the most masterfully executed one-location set films; seminal entries in any history compiled of the silver screen. Stranger by the Lake is Guiraudie’s attempt to craft such a film, and what stands out is the playfulness he exhibits with the sense of claustrophobia within the spatial restrictions.
Guiraudie’s space is a combination of lake, forest and shoreline, and despite the vastness of the lake and the surrounding foliage, Guiraudie creates that said sense of claustrophobia; where the world within a world transforms from a sun bathed paradise into a nightmare under the cover of darkness.
The success of the one-location narrative hinges on the filmmaker or storyteller’s exploitation of atmosphere and character. When the spatial scope is limited; when the world of the story is shrunk, the only resources available to the filmmaker are those of his cast and atmosphere. In his lake side drama turned thriller, Guiraudie uses both masterfully, creating a pleasant air with the intention of later uprooting with finely scripted scenes that paint his characters in broad personable strokes.
Whilst Guiraudie has spoken of the poetry of the image, it is equally a spatial metaphor in which the shore, forest and woods form distinct spatial associations, and are therein identified as spaces of eroticism, sex and the void. But Guiraudie has his characters define the space, creating an interaction whereby their actions and fates cast it as an idyllic or nightmarish space.
The film’s subtext does not only derive from the interaction of character and space, but between the interactions of the characters. Guiraudie uses Franck, Michel and Henri’s triangular relationship to open up a discourse on physical intimacy versus emotional intimacy.
Stranger by the Lake is a film rich with thematic ideas, spatial poetry and metaphor. Before the descent into death, Guiraudie flirts with metaphorical murder, only after which he allows his protagonists to spiral downward into the actuality. Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao) who sits on his rock partaking in none of the cruising activities, instead discusses the nature of love and sex with Franck. Their conversations regarding the pursuit of physical intimacy and pleasure of the moment cast Franck as Nietzsche to Henri’s Aristotle; the words of wisdom of the elder dismissed in favour of short-sighted consideration of only the present and not the past or future.
Stranger by the Lake’s gaze is almost certainly one that is pre-occupied with death, and to the discernible eye or ear, Henri’s reflections on the aforementioned subject addresses a pre-cursor to murder through the idea of La petite mort (“the little death”) in the context of Franck and Michel’s orgasmic gratification. It is a love story, but it is also a tale of and journey into death, that starts out as the La petite mort, to become an external series of murders. Boil Stranger by the Lake down and on one level you will discover a dialogue leaden piece of reflective philosophy, and on the other a tragic and violent love story transfixed with death.
Guiraudie has crafted an immersive and patient tale. Whilst for some it will feel decidedly slow, monotonous even – the impression that you are sat alongside Henri watching the world go by – Guiraudie has paced and plotted his tainted love story to near perfection. The change of the beat from drama to thriller is guided with a deft and natural touch. He fulfils our expectations that something dreadful is about to destroy the general calm that has possessed the film up until that point, leading us into a powerful and dramatic conclusion. But perhaps one will recall Jack Nicholson’s infamous question, “Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” It is a question becoming of Stranger by the Lake, and after all if you dance with the devil…
Stranger by the Lake is released in UK theatres on the 21 February and will be available on DVD from 7 March.
Stranger by the Lake film review by Paul Risker.