Thursday, March 6, 2014

Sex, a lake and murder

Full of male nudity and explicit gay sex, Stranger by the Lake -- a gay-themed thriller set in the world of cruising -- puts audiences in an odd position: The movie goes so far in its sexual frankness that occasional flourishes may remind you of a porn film.

It's fair to think, then, that in addition to spinning an intriguing tale about death and desire, director Alain Guiraudie wants an audience to confront its own attitudes about what's being shown.

In an interview with Slant magazine, Guiraudie has said that his decision to put sex and genitalia in the film's forefront had a political basis: He wanted to show that sex and sex organs are part of "desire and great love."

(You can read an interview with Guiraudie in Slant magazine.)

Set by a lake in the French countryside, Stranger by the Lake revolves around a young man played by Pierre Deladonchamps. Deladonchamps Franck strikes up a relationship with a mustachioed hunk (Christophe Paou) who frequents the lake.

Franck begins the affair knowing that Paou's Michel has murdered a previous lover. Deladonchamps' Franck witnessed the murder, a drowning at the lake that's depicted in an eerie long shot.

Is Franck willfully flirting with danger? Is he putting desire before his responsibility to the larger community? What are responsibilities to a larger community in an atmosphere geared toward anonymous hook-ups? In such an environment, is there really any community at all?

Franck also has conversations with a portly, dispirited man (Patrick D'Assumcao) who avoids the heterosexual side of the lake, but isn't interested in sex with men.

Guiraudie works in style that, with a few exceptions, seems almost without affect. But for me, what Guiraudie describes as a "political" decision -- i.e., the movie's nudity and explicit sex -- didn't help bring the story's more interesting concerns into any sharper focus.

Guiraudie also told Slant that he used body doubles in some of the "non-simulated" sex scenes: The actors evidently didn't want to go quite that far. That made me wonder: If the actors weren't prepared totally to immerse, why should we?

Stranger by the Lake would be easier to dismiss if it weren't a serious movie that finds menace in an idyllic setting. It is a kind meditative exercise in contradiction, at once languid and tense, observant and rash, subtle and blatant.

But how much did we really need to see in a movie that wonders how much its main character is able -- and perhaps willing -- to see? How you answer that question may well determine your response to Stranger by the Lake.

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