Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Stranger By the Lake (L'inconnu du lac)

STRANGER BY THE LAKE (L'inconnu du lac)      B+       
France  (97 mi)  2013  ‘Scope  d:  Alain Guiraudie        Website            Trailer

A sexually explicit film that might qualify as porn noir, where if there is an insatiable public appetite for watching gay sex onscreen, this is the film of choice, as the salacious titillation is just the preliminary course, so to speak, only part of what evolves into a modernist existential thriller, one that evokes a darkening mood of murder and enveloping danger.  What’s immediately apparent is the meticulous precision of the film, which gives pause for reflection, as it does exhibit a rare intelligence, but the overly detached, deeply repressive territory may be too subtle for most viewers, as this minimalist, near Bressonian exercise offers few clues as an intricately probing psychological thriller.  What it does do is perfectly capture an enclosed space, a restricted territory, a perfectly secluded summer lake that becomes a haven for gay men to lie around naked on the beach, occasionally swimming, before pairing off in the nearby woods for actual unsimulated sex, where the director confines his camera to the same few locations, never once leaving the beach surroundings, becoming stiflingly claustrophobic, and eventually suffocating.  The film’s structure is built upon a carefully designed monotony of surface detail, where the rhythm is established through a series of repetitive routines, where the audience gets lulled to sleep by the familiarity, as each new day begins with the exact same camera shot of an approaching car searching for a spot to park in the small lot, then there’s a short walk through the woods to the beach where unadorned figures are seen sporadically lying about sun-bathing nude, as friends politely acknowledge one another with kisses to the cheek as they arrive.  While there’s an interesting geometry to the way bodies remain at a careful distance from one another, perhaps more intriguing is the realization that this view of the beach can’t be shot from anywhere except the middle of the lake, which becomes a disturbing point of view as the film unravels.  The characteristic long shots and extended takes from cinematographer Claire Mathon are reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s CACHÉ (2005), which invite the viewer to focus their attention on anything out of place and on carefully placed details.

The film is seen through the eyes of Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a twentysomething who is a regular at the beach, where we follow his vantage point even as he is swimming in the water, where his surveillance of the shoreline reveals a man sitting off to the side away from the others, Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), a somewhat chubby but congenial outsider who remains clothed and never goes into the water, striking up an easygoing friendship, chatting each day until someone more desirous arrives.  Henri is a recent widower, a reported bisexual who remains a picture of loneliness and solitude, never venturing to the cruising section of the beach, never talking to anyone except Franck, but often comments on gay behavior.  Since there are so few doors into this enclosed culture, his insights are particularly welcome, even when offered so casually, as they offer a window into this tightly constricted universe.  Franck’s sexual interest perks up with the arrival of Michel (Christophe Paou), sort of a cross between Mark Spitz and Harry Reems, a muscular swimmer with a perfect physique, where everything about him is desirable, except he has a needy partner, with whom he disappears after a brief exchange.  Later that evening, however, when Franck is alone in the woods overlooking the tranquil lake, he watches Michel drown his partner before swimming ashore.  Despite the continuing presence of the murdered man’s car in the lot and his beach towel and clothes on the beach, Franck remains silent about what he saw while entering into a furiously passionate, sexual affair with the killer, as if the murder was an aphrodisiac to his senses.  As the relationship deepens, Franck attempts to expand it beyond the confines of the beach, but Michel continually rejects the notion, insisting his private life remain private.  When the body washes ashore and the police begin asking questions, Franck is surprised when Michel shows no discomfort whatsoever over the loss of his partner.

Much like Henri, the Police Inspector (Jérôme Chappatte) offers curious insight into this secretive community, becoming a commentary on sad and empty lives that mechanically have sexual experiences with no lasting value, often without sharing names, as almost immediately, they’re in need of sexual replenishment, routinely changing partners.  The film bears an uncanny resemblance to Éric Rohmer’s A SUMMER’S TALE (Conte d'été) 1996, especially the idyllic seaside location searching for love, becoming a summertime flirtation without the sexual explicitness, but featuring characters who are unable to make commitments and are constantly avoiding emotional connections.  In this secluded spot on a picturesque lake, there is no real love or commitment, but an anonymous game of musical chairs, where man is often seen as a hunter surviving on animal instincts, searching out sexual conquests or liaisons, yet remaining imprisoned by the existential nature of remaining isolated and alone.  Aware of the potential danger, or more likely excited by it, Franck ignores the advice of his friend Henri and indulges his passion, where an alarm bell goes off when Michel invites him into the water to go swimming, which all of a sudden exudes a sense of overwhelming danger.  In the water, Michel is the alpha male, where all others must submit to his dominating physical prowess, becoming an object of obsession in Franck’s eyes, who still remains hopelessly drawn to him.  It’s impossible to understand what possible self-justifying logic Franck uses where he’s willing to risk death for a love he barely understands and instead feels controlled by, veering into the psychological void of amorality, questioning the limits of illicit sexual desire and the eroticism inherent in dangerous situations.  The film appears heavily influenced by French writer/philosopher George Bataille, author of Christophe Honoré’s MA MÈRE (2004), a transgressive work that equates base sexuality with the divine, where transcendence is achieved only through indulgence.  Elaborating on a Sartrian No Exit theme, Guiraudie may be drawing upon a gay preoccupation with self loathing, failing to live up to “straight” society’s conception of beauty and sex, and in pursuit of an ever elusive perfect erotic desire, may equate sexuality with a drive towards death (including anal sex without condoms), where in perhaps the scene of the film, Franck joins Michel *in* the lake at the scene of the crime, at the exact same evening hour when no one else is around.  What happens afterwards only punctuates the intrusive presence of blackness that has pervaded Franck’s desirous soul, like an otherworldly presence, forced to live in the self-imposed blindness of a murky void, where the director offers no comfort that there is any way out.

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