Tanning, swimming, canoodling with danger.
There's no shortage of graphic violence on multiplex screens, but graphic sex is pretty rare. So it's remarkable when a work like the compelling French movie Stranger by the Lake comes along. It depicts sex with a frankness I've seldom encountered in mainstream films. There are Catherine Breillat films like Romance and... not many others.
Stranger by the Lake is set at a cruisy beach, the kind of place where guys do a little tanning and a little swimming — and a little wandering into the bushes, where they see what develops. Writer and director Alain Guiraudie captures this world with a documentarian's curiosity. There's an interesting variety to the activity, and there are rules and rituals. For example: The beachgoers don't bother learning many details of each other's lives. This becomes important. Stranger by the Lake is a low-key thriller about a mass murderer, and a police inspector (Jérôme Chappatte) looking into the crimes is baffled and frustrated when he realizes the men don't even know one another's names.
The film stars Pierre Deladonchamps as a young man named Franck. He partakes in his share of the beach's pleasures, but he's equally interested in a commodity that appears to be in short supply: intimacy. Franck develops a warm rapport with an older man who mostly keeps to himself (Patrick D'Assumçao). Additionally, Franck yearns for gorgeous Michel (Christophe Paou), who is friendly but sends mixed signals.
There is a brutal slaying. A man kills his lover. As in a Columbo movie, this occurs early on, and the viewer knows exactly who did it, so I'm not giving anything away when I report that the murderer is Michel. Franck witnesses the crime, and then come developments that undermine my faith in the film: Franck continues pursuing Michel, and the two develop a relationship. Guiraudie asks us to believe that when it comes to romance, Franck can overlook a little thing like murder.
I don't buy it, but I think I understand the artistic choice. I take the film to be an allegory of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Guiraudie alludes to the theme in scenes that take place in the bushes, where there is not general agreement on the subject of condom use. Anonymous sex is very risky, obviously, and Guiraudie seems to be saying that canoodling with a known serial killer is thematically equivalent to a quickie in the woods with a stranger. Certainly both encounters could end badly.
But in movies, insights are more powerful when they arrive in ways that are true to human behavior as we normally experience it. Guiraudie asks us to accept a crucial plot development that isn't, on its face, believable. That diminishes an otherwise striking film.