The disarmingly quiet opening of Stranger by the Lake sets the tone for everything that comes afterwards. A young man named Franck arrives at the lake to sunbathe, swim, and take part in the gay cruising scene in the nearby forest. Some men lie on towels as they work on their tan and look for possible lovers, while others are in serious relationships and are here to pass the time.
During these moments – and throughout the rest of the film – there is no music score, just the natural ambient sounds of the outdoors. There are no fancy camera tricks, just stationary shots of the action and the scenery within the frame.
Upon his arrival, Franck meets Henri, a kind-hearted, lonely and obese middle-aged man who is on a three-week vacation and comes to the lake every day, although he never leaves the shore. He is content to sit and stare, and occasionally strike up a conversation when given the opportunity. Most of the men are taken aback by Henri. While nearly every male on the lake struts around in their birthday suits, Henri keeps his clothes on. He doesn’t seem to be interested in anyone, except Franck, who seems to enjoy his company.
And then one day, Franck catches sight of Michel, the mysterious and handsome golden boy who happens to be a fantastic swimmer. Desire takes hold of Franck, who would like nothing more than to get Michel alone in the woods for a casual tryst. As it turns out, Michel has a boyfriend.
That night, Franck has sex with a random partner in the forest. Afterwards, he heads for his car, and peers out of the woods and onto the lake. Michel is with his boyfriend. They seem to be having a great time, until it becomes apparent that there is some sort of struggle going on.
Franck watches in horror from afar as Michel drowns his lover, before swimming to the shore. As Franck is blinded by his lust for Michel, he acts as if nothing happened and goes home.
The next day, Michel and Franck sit and talk to one another. Michel makes a pass at Franck, and the two have sex. Before long, they are carrying on a love affair, much to Henri’s disapproval. He knows that something is not quite right with Michel. He may also harbor hidden feelings for Franck, something that becomes quite obvious as the film goes on. A detective starts to visit the site on a regular basis, asking questions and probing for answers.
“I’m really worried about this Michel thing,” Franck tells Henri, in one of their many exchanges. “Watch out. Sex isn’t everything,” replies Henri. Still, Franck ignores the subtle warnings from Henri and continues to see Michel.
Much talk is heard during the film of a large silurus that lurks within the waters, although none of the other men have seen it. Henri warns Franck of the possible danger. True to his character, Franck scoffs at Henri’s concerns, insisting that there is nothing to be afraid of. Still, he is not so sure. A pervasive sense of dread lies at the heart of Stranger by the Lake. The fact that the film is so quiet and hypnotic only serves to create an overwhelming sense of unease. When Michel finally asks Franck to join him for a dip in the lake, the suspense is almost unbearable. This sequence is expertly crafted and all too effective. As Michel beckons him from the shallow end of the lake, we know all too well that Franck is trapped in a web of his own making and that there is no turning back.
By the end of Stranger by the Lake, there will be those who feel as though the film is anti-climactic, but this is simply not the case. This highly existential character study has the perfect ending. Here is a work of art that will linger in your mind long after you have seen it. Director Alain Guiraudie has given us a masterful film in Stranger by the Lake. No doubt there will be those who compare his work here to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and I feel that this is justified. But this is more than a simple homage to a master filmmaker. It also serves as a commentary on the depths of human desire, the way in which we hurl ourselves into the abyss, throwing caution to the wind for a moment of pleasure, and the inevitable consequences that we face as a result.
And now, a warning. If you are the sort that is easily offended, please know that Stranger by the Lake features frank depictions of gay sex, as well as two brief hardcore shots that will surely raise the eyebrows of more conservative viewers. Also, if full frontal male nudity bothers you in the slightest, you may want to skip this film, as it is virtually non-stop from the first frame to the last. With that being said, this film is not pornographic, and to label it as such would be misguided. This is an adult film for mature audiences, one that should be discussed afterwards. There are many layers here.