Stranger by the Lake (2013) (Unrated)

"Stranger by the Lake" was notable for two reasons when it came out: its thriller atmosphere that compressed, chilled, and horrified its audience; and its unashamed, unblinking look at homosexual intercourse, including some visuals that the common viewer was not accustomed to. This just proves that Europe is far ahead of America in these regards because something like this, or like "Wetlands" would be impossible to make in the United States. The closest thing we have (that was a success, mind you) is Steve McQueen's "Shame" and that was a ratings controversy in of its because it does not even come close to chowing what "Stranger by the Lake" shows.
Does that really matter or is it just part of the film?
Well, that's a good question and I think it does merit mentioning because the sex scenes were actually the only part of "Stranger by the Lake" that I had an actual problem with. It seemed gratuitous and I understand the underground movement or art cinema that is bringing queer sexuality and all its glories to the forefront, but my mind just wants to know: isn't something better left for the imagination?
When Alain Guiraudie (the writer and director) takes a step back and lets a little shadow cover a certain area, the intrigue is still kept, as is the sexiness.
Besides what the film postulates about the homosexual man's ability to make rational decisions—or his ability to occupy a sane frame of mind, for that matter—are not the point. The point is "Stranger by the Lake" exceeds far and beyond as a thriller, and nothing more. Don't try to read cultural connotations into it (though that may be impossible for some, me included), because you'll be denying yourself the pleasure of spine-tingling suspense. I can't remember being on the edge of my seat so intensely in quite a long time. 
What makes "Stranger by the Lake" great is that it stretches out the anxiety, it lets the pressure build and build until you feel like you might explode out of your very skin...and then it denies you that. The suspense parts are short and far between.
The movie is focalized entirely at a gay cruising beach where men come to suntan in the nude and hook-up in the bushes. The film is not shy about the hips, the groin, or the legs. It allows the viewer to see every crevice and every desexualized part of the body. It's not that erotic, all things considered. Even though sex is a huge part of the movie, the sexiness of it I would say, is fairly low.
Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is coming back to the beach for the summer. He parks his car amidst the handful of others and treads down to the beach, his eyes searching for "his man", the one he'll want to have sex with.
He spots a loner, sitting off to the side and goes to introduce himself. This is Henri (Patrick d'Assumçao). Neither man seems interested in getting in the other's pants, but they do strike up a conversation and slowly become friends.
Franck is really interested in Michel (Christophe Paou), a mustached, muscled athlete who fits the man's man profile quite well. Michel is involved with another boy so Franck gets in line and complains to Henri about this.
But then...things take a turn for the interesting when Franck accidentally views a murder and from there, the nail-biting begins.
What makes the film such a success is the way Guiraudie chooses to film it. We can hear the crunch of the gravel, the waves of the lake, and the wind in the trees. There is no artificial lighting and we are dependent at all times on the moon or headlights from cars to light our screen. Sometimes it goes pitch black and we have to fill in the noises with our imagination. This can be absolutely terrifying, particularly given some of the movie's context.
But yet, it isn't seamless and the sex scenes do kind of detract from what could have been a knock-out thriller. I suppose it just had to be in there, oh well.
The acting here is top notch, the filming is unbelievably good, and the story-telling allows the space for real artistry to enter. This is the rebirth of a new idea: high art makes pulp fiction.
I kind of like that.

Score: ★★★½

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