Horror is evolving as a genre. Although your local multiplex is still peppered with the usual contenders, look a bit closer at the schedule and you’ll find the latest drama, thriller, or crime offering is closer to horror than you might expect. In this bi-weekly series, Joey Keogh presents a film not generally classified as horror and argues why it exhibits the qualities of a great flight flick, and therefore deserves the attention of fans as an example of Not Quite Horror. In this installment, we turn our attention to chilling French queer thriller Stranger By The Lake.
Nothing scares the world (read: America) more than sex. Not horrible, graphic, gory violence that is sustained for ten minutes of non-stop screen-time, but sex. And even worse is gay sex. Nominated for eight César Awards (French Oscars) and widely acclaimed by film critics, Stranger By The Lake barely made a ripple upon receiving a predictably limited theatrical release in early 2014. The flick made the rounds on the festival circuit and was well received, but when it came time to sell it to a mass market, it seemed censors couldn’t quite get past the “strong, real sex” contained therein (that’s a direct quote from the BBFC guidelines). You’d swear the thing was as thinly-plotted as a porno movie.In fact, as modern noir thrillers go, Stranger By The Lake is in a class of its own, and I’m not just saying that because the French language makes everything seem a bit fancier. Written and directed by Alain Guiraudie, the action takes place in and around the titular lake, a popular cruising spot for gay men. The hero of the piece is the adorably, and possibly fatally, naïve Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps, who nabbed a Most Promising Actor César for his performance), who’s looking for someone to canoodle with when he happens upon a murder.
Rather than run for the hills, Franck is enamoured with the culprit, a brooding, young Tom Selleck-esque chap named Michel (Christophe Paou), and the rest of the movie is spent wondering whether Franck is going to confess to him what he knows, or if Michel is going to figure it out for himself first. It’s a simple enough setup that somehow makes quite a scenic, expansive location seem uncomfortably claustrophobic. There’s a constant, creepy sense that Franck is being watched, even as he lurks in the trees, watching others. Stranger By The Lake is, at its core, all about watching, and specifically what we see when we’re not supposed to be looking.
It’s also a movie about the devastating effects of jealousy as, as Franck grows closer to Michel, his new buddy Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao) notices a change in his demeanour and begins to question him. Although Henri is ostensibly a straight man just looking for some attention (he remains mostly clothed throughout, unlike every other visitor to the lake), the tension builds as Franck lashes out in the misguided belief that he must fancy him. Stranger By The Lake, as its title suggests, posits the idea that everyone is a witness, everyone is a suspect, everyone has something to hide. Seemingly innocuous conversations and sexual encounters are depicted in static, long Steadicam shots that suggest voyeurism even when nothing of interest is really happening and, seemingly, nobody is looking but us.
Although they’ll be a cause of concern to some, the realism of the sex scenes, in particular, only adds to the chilly atmosphere. They’re honest, rather than sexy, and although the first dick is a bit of shock, after a while the nudity becomes part of the narrative. The wind rustling through the trees is about as close to score as it gets, and most of the action takes place in daylight–the murder included. Strangely, it’s not even the centrepiece of the film. It’s the catalyst, sure, but it happens quickly and we move almost abruptly on to the next scene as though nothing has occurred. The audience is lulled, alongside Franck, into a false sense of security. Even though he has witnessed his lover brutally killing someone, when questioned by police he remains unmoved. We begin to question what we, too, have seen.
Stranger By The Lake quietly and gradually builds tension until suddenly turning it up to eleven in a finale sequence that is both frustratingly and ingeniously left open-ended. Although the movie may feel like a bit of a slog at first, it’s worth sticking with, and it isn’t quite as shocking as its BBFC warning would have you believe. Watching poor Franck struggle with his feelings for Michel along with his own conscience creates an air of unease that is difficult to escape because his dilemma is so easy to relate to. The setting is simultaneously dreamlike and realistic. It feels as though anything could and, in fact, did happen at this lake. It’s shot in such a stark, unapologetic manner that it’s disarmingly realistic at times. And it will stay with you.