That Alain Guiraudie’s 2013 film Stranger by the Lake (French: L’Inconnu du lac) has been taken up by some as an erotic thriller in many circles is a most curious designation. Sure, there’s a surfeit of nudity in the film and the entirety of its emotional arc hinges on the relationship between sex and death (the defining characteristic of erotic thrills), but it is not the least bit erotic. Furthermore, it does not for a second pretend to be erotic (in contrast to many erotic thrillers are not erotic out of failure of execution even when they intend to be so).
In fact, every shot of the film, from the first angular image until the very conclusion, works as a study in detachment, so much so that the film borders on suffocation. It finds a certain unison between clinical examination of human distance and Hitchcock at his most malevolent and monomaniacal, but its dark heart is heavily filtered through a highly unmoving sense of frigid inhumanity. Now, I and many of my critical compatriots happen to think very highly of detached studies of inhumanity filtered through the eyes of a pitch-black thriller, but if you are looking for anything the least bit lively and humane, you will not find it here.
Guiraudie begins on a beach, and he ends there too. The entire film closes off its emotional play just as its characters close off their lives. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) our wayward, distant protagonist, spends most of his days at a secluded nude beach primarily frequented by homosexuals with an intent to engage in off-hand sexual intercourse. One day, Franck meets the mysterious Michel (Christophe Paou), taking a slight attraction to him. Soon enough, he alone witnesses Michel murder his current partner via drowning, an action which only pushes Franck to fall further into intoxication with the man who may prove his undoing.
Saucy stuff, huh? Good thing Guiraudie has it in for us. He spends every waking second of the film squeezing any breath out of it, showcasing his well-studied composition (which favors hard angles) and filtering the film through a lens of repetition with such commitment that it meets us halfway between boredom and bone-chilling. It’s a thoroughly miserable motion picture, but a work that is entirely intent on and about miserable-ism. Guiraudie’s take on the material (he doubles as the writer) is that the humans populating the film’s limbo suffer from a malcontent loneliness. The only reason they come to the beach is to find what little momentary physical excitement they can, for their daily lives seem to afford them nothing. They are humans entirely uninterested in life outside of the beach – their world lives and dies upon their arrival and departure, which is why Guiraudie constructs the film around the repeating visual motif of the jagged parking lot (looks like Guiraudie has seen his Knife in the Water, huh?) the men use to arrive and leave.
To render their empty internal lives external, Guiraudie’s static, uninviting camera abounds, positioned precisely to subvert our expectations of “gay erotic beach thriller” and to let in only difficulty. There is no ebb and flow to the film, for these people have no ebb and flow to their lives. They know only mordant monotony, and the film follows suit: Franck arrives at the beach, he talks with his friend Henri (Patrick d’ Assumcao), he has distant sex with Michel, rinse, repeat. An investigator, or at least someone pretending to be one, joins the film at some point, but the threat of Michel’s actions never rises to a boil. Their sex is passionless and barren, a pale attempt at diverting their attention away from what little humanity they find around them, and any concern about murder and death follows suit. It’s a highly artificial film, in this regard (Guiaudie makes no justification for why Franck is thoroughly uninterested in telling the police about Michel’s actions, other than that his script requires Franck to do nothing whatsoever but remain thoroughly passive). That in a nutshell is the film; not one moment of lust or envy or any other lively sin courses through its veins from beginning to end. There’s no pulse, no passion. It is an actively, aggressively passive film.
But what does it say for a filmmaker to make a film so thoroughly and completely dedicated to remaining passionless and distant? Popular wisdom would suggest it marks a director lacking love for film, but I suggest otherwise. It takes a director totally and entirely committed to the passion of dispassion to create something so stripped down and lacking in emotion (and also, one would assume, a director totally and entirely committed to being French). Guiraudie’s final product is a devious, sinister, totally confrontational work about the nature of desire and its prismatic grip on wayward souls (all of us, incidentally), and it’s a particularly droll thriller in an age where truly macabre works have been lost to the ages. Still, Guiraudie isn’t quite at what I suspect to be his upcoming peak yet; he has rhythm but no rhyme. He plays his few tricks a bit too haphazardly and without judicious restraint, and to compare it to Hitch or the more obvious Polanski, it lacks the thoroughly exciting, transcendent way those films fixated on the rough angles between playful teasing, demented intellectualism, and pure lurid wrath. Those directors could tiptoe around theme and understood the dexterity of walking a fine tightrope around tone and atmosphere, and they knew how to have a little fun with their filmmaking in the meantime. Guiraudie only has one note, but he makes up by playing the hell out of it.