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I'd be scared if I were you
Stranger by the Lake is a slow-burn psychological horror set at a nude beach
“Who knows what true loneliness is – not the conventional word but the naked terror?”
- Joseph Conrad
Alain Guiraudie's 2013 film Stranger by the Lake (L'Inconnu du lac) is a horror film that explores the depths and dangers of loneliness and the moral ambiguities of desire. The film premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, shocking audiences with its unflinching, explicit depictions of nudity and sexuality while also earning critical acclaim, winning the Queer Palm award, with Guiraudie claiming the award for Best Director. At the 2014 César Awards, Pierre Deladonchamps took the prize for Most Promising Actor.
Filmed entirely at a dreamy, melancholic nude beach alongside a tranquil lake (the Lake of Sainte-Croix in France) nestled in a shadowy forest, Stranger by the Lake was shot using only natural outdoor lighting – a feat of patience on the director's part, who set up each scene based on the ever-changing positions of the sun and clouds. There is no musical score; instead, the film utilizes the ambient sounds of the rustling tree leaves, the wind whipping through the dry grass, and the waters of the sun-dappled lake lapping against the rocky shore. The resulting work is both breathtakingly beautiful and deeply unnerving. The idea that danger, madness, and violence can lurk insidiously within nature's idyll has been explored in countless Hollywood slasher films, from Friday the 13th to Sleepaway Camp. As in these films, Stranger by the Lake’s plot revolves around a psychopathic killer, but it explores a form of terror that is something more abstract and subjective than a malevolent monster lurking in the woods - the existential terror of being alone.
I can't go a day without seeing you
Early in the film, we are introduced to Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a handsome young man who spends his days at the lake sunbathing, swimming, and cruising the adjacent woods for sexual encounters. Emerging from the lake one afternoon, he starts a conversation with Henri (Patrick d'Assumçao), a mysterious middle-aged man he observes sitting clothed and companionless at the beach's edge. Frowning, with his arms perpetually crossed, Henri is lonely, depressed, and apprehensive. He confides that he has recently suffered a breakup with his girlfriend and that sitting by the lake reminds him of their happier days spent on the beaches of Cap d'Agde and Landes. Noting that he has never observed Henri talking to the other men at the lake, Franck observes, "Apparently, you like being alone." Henri replies, "I'm alone because no one talks to me." Henri warns Franck that he has heard stories of a lake monster, a giant Silurus, that lurks in the waters, but Franck is unconcerned.
Henri: Doesn't the Silurus scare you?
Franck: (Smiling skeptically) The 30-footer?
Henri: 15 would do the trick.
As the summer progresses, Henri and Franck develop an unlikely friendship, which Henri touchingly acknowledges later in the film. Perseverating on his failed relationship and how he was once preoccupied with little more than sex and romance, Henri confesses to Franck,
I found friendship boring. I didn't see the point. Now I can't go a day without seeing you. You make my heart race, like when I'm in love. Know what I mean? But I have no desire to sleep with you. You want to be with me, too. And not to screw, I imagine.
Even as his friendship with Henri deepens, Franck becomes intrigued by another beachgoer, Michel (Christophe Paou), a chiseled, mustached, enigmatic, vaguely sinister lothario. One night, after the other beachgoers have departed, Franck lingers in the woods, looking on enviously as Michel and his boyfriend tussle in the lake. However, his envy soon turns to shock as he realizes that Michel is, in fact, brutally drowning his young companion. He watches in silence as Michel allows the lifeless body to sink into the moonlit lake before coolly emerging from the water, getting dressed, and walking away.
Franck cannot resist his attraction to Michel despite what he has witnessed. The parking area is empty when he arrives at the lake the following day, except for the victim's red Peugeot. He is fully aware that Michel has murdered the young man, yet he is thrilled when Michel later appears and asks if he can share his beach towel. Soon, the two are romantically entwined. Henri, watching the relationship evolve from his perch at the lake's edge, warns Franck.
So he's sexy, tanned, and has a great body. Maybe you're too gaga to see it, but he's weird. I'd be scared if I were you.
Henri is right about a monster at the lake, but it is no oversized Silurus. By this point, Franck is far too infatuated with Michel to heed Henri's warnings. Even as the body of Michel's victim is discovered, a police detective appears on the scene and begins to ask questions, and more murders transpire, Franck finds himself increasingly unable to reject Michel's seductive charms.
At least you can talk to strangers
There is an atmosphere of vulnerability at a nude beach where traditional social barriers are less foreboding, and our commonality with others is, at least superficially, more readily apparent. However, that sort of vulnerability can invite both intimacy and exploitation. As such, the nude beach in Stranger by the Lake provides the ideal setting for Guiraudie's study of the inscrutability of human emotions, particularly the often indistinct boundaries between love and obsession, pleasure and suffering, and desire and self-destruction. However, Guiraudie's primary objective is to consider the profound angst brought about by loneliness and the extreme measures we take to avoid its grip.
Guiraudie makes a point to acknowledge the social boundaries of the beach, with straight families on one end and gay men on the other, with nudity permitted in some areas and prohibited in others, with sexual activity the norm in some spots and taboo elsewhere. He ponders how these segregated spaces develop out of a fundamental need to create opportunities to connect with others most like ourselves. The often arbitrary divisions of these communities are touched upon during a humorous exchange between Franck and a fiercely territorial gay couple midway through the film.
Man: I know you local queers. You'd screw the planet if you could!
Franck: Well, this is a cruising spot.
Man: No, it's not. Over there, yes, but not here!
Franck: Where's the line?
Man: At those trees!
Not all men in the cruising area are here for sexual hookups. Many are looking for something else entirely – platonic companionship, someone to talk to, perhaps even love. In their first encounter, Franck wonders why the straight Henri chooses to stay on the predominantly gay side of the beach instead of the portion of the lake frequented by families and couples. "Why don't you go over there? On the other side?" Franck asks. Henri responds, "I like it here. On the other side, I'd spend the afternoon alone. If I tried talking to people, they'd think I was weird. At cruising spots, at least you can talk to strangers." The gay man may be unwelcome on the family beach, but as Henri demonstrates, so is the unpartnered straight man.
Henri's observation encourages us to consider that this little stretch of beach is far more than a space for securing anonymous sexual encounters. It is a sanctuary for the desperately lonely, filled with people who may be looking for something more substantive than an occasional tryst in the woods. Moreover, Henri's presence on the gay side of the lake suggests that the seemingly well-defined communities of the lake (and those in the larger society) may have far more in common than we would care to admit. Isn't everyone at the lake seeking out some form of companionship and intimacy? Though this intimacy is manifested in different ways – from sexual intercourse to casual conversation to the platonic, almost juvenile "show me yours and I'll show you mine" reciprocity of the nude beach – the motivation is essentially the same – to form some sort of connection with others.
You guys have a strange way of loving each other
While rejecting the notion that the naked men of the beach seek nothing more than anonymous sex, Guiraudie does not shy away from grappling with certain dysfunctional and self-destructive attributes of mainstream gay culture – classism, narcissism, and an obsession with physical beauty – that often preclude the possibility of a cohesive and truly inclusive community. The men at the lake are, for the most part, "alone together." The camera often lingers on the less stereotypically attractive and presumably less desirable men who are resigned to wandering the beach on their own or longingly watching the younger couples from a distance. They are politely brushed aside or ignored by the fit young men like Franck, who is at the same time all too eager to overlook Michel's psychopathy because he finds him sexually appealing. For the men desperate to experience some semblance of community at the beach, even a murder and the presence of a police detective is not enough to keep them away. During a late-night interrogation of Franck at the lake, Inspecteur Damroder (Jérôme Chappatte) criticizes this culture.
Don't you find it odd we've only just found the body, and two days later, everyone's back cruising like nothing happened? One of your own was murdered, and you don't care? Imagine, this boy goes missing three days, his towel and car in plain view, and no one notices… You guys have a strange way of loving each other sometimes.
"We can't stop living," Franck matter-of-factly replies, revealing himself as increasingly aligned with Michel's selfishness, callous disregard for human life, and egotistical pursuit of pleasure, and foreshadowing his own disconcerting transformation by the film's end.
Don't leave me
In Stranger by the Lake's chilling final sequence, shot entirely in the blackness of night, Franck, drenched in blood, hides in the forest as the raging Michel calls out, "Don't leave me, Franck. I need you." For the first time, we witness authentic terror in Franck's eyes – not because he fears this remorseless killer who stalks him – but because he fears being without him.
In a 2013 interview with Hélène Frappat, Stranger by the Lake director Alain Guiraudie describes a lake as "a calming place, and at the same time, it can swallow you up forever." In his film, the lake might serve as a metaphor for human relationships, which can both nourish and nurture but also consume and destroy. In our hunger for intimacy, we may diminish or dismiss the danger that dwells beneath the surface or behind the facade – or more disturbingly, we may fully enable and embrace it. 🪐
Stranger by the Lake is available through Strand Releasing.
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