Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Stranger by the Lake

This review originally posted on Alex Raphael as part of his Guest Poster Series: Foreign Favorites. This certainly is no favorite of mine, but Alex was gracious enough to let me participate anyway. For that, I have to give him a big thanks. Now, on with the review...

Directed by Alain Guiraudie.
2013. Not Rated, 97 minutes.
Pierre Deladonchamps
Patrick d'Assumcao
Christophe Pauo
Jerome Chappatte
Mathieu Vervisch
Gilbert Traina
Emmanuel Daumas

Synopsis: Summertime. A cruising spot for men, tucked away on the shores of a lake. Franck falls in love with Michel. An attractive, potent and lethally dangerous man. Franck knows this, but wants to live out his passion anyway. (imdb.com)

This is one of those movies I'm told is brilliant, but I'm not feeling the greatness. My main problem is that it can't decide what it wants to be. This isn't some masterful fusion of genres. It's a film with abrupt detours down disparate paths. At first, it appears as if we're going to get a character study of Franck (Deladonchamps), a young man desperately looking for love, but in a rather unhealthy manner. Instead of meeting people and trying to form relationships built on commonalities, he's trying to find what his heart desires through his groin. He hangs out everyday at the local lake that doubles as the place to "cruise." By "cruise," I mean hook up with random guys for casual, possibly anonymous, and discrete sex in the woods surrounding the water. By discrete, I mean the people in their "real" lives may not know these guys hang out here as most have wives and girlfriends. However, not necessarily discrete during the act since some like to watch and be watched. by the way, hanging out is a literal term also. There are naked dudes everywhere. The one outsider among them is Henri (d'Assumcao) who just comes to the lake, sits on the rocks near the shore and stares at the water all day. He and Franck strike up a friendship of sorts. Franck goes over, says hi, and chit-chats with Henri a bit before jaunting off to the woods to get it on with someone.

The problem with the setup is that we never really get the character study we're prepped for. Conversations between Franck and Henri are only mildly interesting and not at all compelling. We get the idea that Franck has no clue what love is, or at least falls into it much too quickly. After bopping the same guy tow or three days in a row, he's hopelessly head over heels while his newfound partner clearly isn't However, there really is no examination of this. Instead of exploring our hero's psyche, we're suddenly off on a murder mystery as the body of one of the cruisers is discovered in the lake. A creepy detective starts coming around asking questions of everyone. He's meant to appear to be a veteran cop with a cool seen-it-all demeanor, the type that can't be phased. With him constantly popping up out of nowhere he's only slightly less icky than that one dude who likes to stand next to couples while they're in the act and fondle himself and has the nerve to get offended if someone asks him to go away. Yeah, that really happens. As for the detective, his presence fails to do the one thing it must, add mystery to the proceedings. We can gather who the killer is from the conversations that are had. The fact that there aren't many characters of any significance doesn't help. Our too-cool cop just highlights the lack of dramatic tension rather than drawing us into his investigation.

Since the budding friendship, Franck's potential romance with another suitor, nor the murder mystery prove to be intriguing, all we're left with is the sex. Yes, there's plenty it. And it's pretty graphic, including an actual ejaculation. There is so much sex that it takes over the movie. It's arguable that this is merely porn with better production values. The easy comparison, of course, is another recent French movie with explicit sex featuring gay characters: Blue is the Warmest Color. The difference is that in Blue the sex is contained to a few scenes, extensive, but still enveloped within a narrative that is far more compelling than it is titillating. Here, the movie is half the length with at least twice the sex and a number of plot lines that aren't really working with each other.

As if the lack of cooperation between the various narrative strands isn't enough, another is thrown into the mix. During the last ten minutes or so, a slasher flick breaks out. It's meant to be the grand finale of a sexy thriller. Instead, it feels like Jason Vorhees showed up on the set and confused things even further. While this is somewhat fun, it's in a completely different vein than everything that happens to this point and takes me completely out of the movie to whatever extent I was actually still in it. It's more of a spectacular crash and burn than a great finish. Somewhere in the wreckage there lies a great film, maybe two. One could have us delving into Franck's mind, the other a suspenseful whodunit. As assembled, it's a jumble of parts meant for different machines.


  1. Thanks again for participating. I think Rififii is my favourite French film.

    1. Thanks for hosting. Haven't seen Rififii. Haven't even hears of it.

  2. Interesting review! I was a little cooler on Stranger by the Lake than I expected. The way little details accumulate, like that repeated shot of the cars in the parking area by the lake, or who we see various characters with on different occasions, makes it more interesting. But in the end, it's really one big extended metaphor for gay sex, and when I realized that and started looking at the whole thing in that light, I wound up being more impressed by the film than I initially thought. Also, that one long, unbroken shot of the murder, with the almost unbearably slow zoom in on the killer, is stunning.

    1. Can something be a metaphor for the same thing it's using to tell its story? If so, it's not saying anything good about it since it's represented rather tragically. There are a number of nice shots in the movie. To be honest, though, by the time we get to the one you mentioned I ceased to care.

  3. Glad I'm not the only one. I'll definitely check out your review.

  4. This is a wonderful review, and I am still cracking up over your Jason Vorhees comment. It's a shame this wasn't better. It sounds like something that, if handled differently, could have been a terrific character-driven mystery. It's a shame it lost its way and tried to substitute graphic sex and a cheap thrilleresque angle for great storytelling.

    And an actual ejaculation, huh? Wow, those daring French. :-P

    1. It could've been so much better, but yeah, it needed to be handled differently. To be fair, I may have no clue what I'm talking about since it's scored 93% on the tomatometer. Didn't work for me, in any event.