So easy to describe this movie: Hitchcock's Fire Island adventure. A film blanc with cumshots. Surface analysis of a movie that, in many ways, is all about surfaces. But this story of a young gay man drawn into murder and obsession during a jaunt to a lakeside cruising spot is all about the depths beneath those surfaces. Dive in.
The whole thing takes place by the titular lake; we infer from conversations that there are restaurants, bedrooms, and a police station nearby, but we only ever see our characters in various states of undress frolicking, chatting, and hooking up in and around the lake, swimming naked, fucking in the forest. The idyllic, dreamy atmosphere is only enhanced by early chat of a silurus, maybe as long as fifteen feet, that lurks beneath the lake's surface.
We follow young Franck as he sunbathes, swims, hangs out, and hooks up, and follow his growing relationships with two men. Henri is a shlubby logger, shy but good-natured, who only ever sits by the lake and chats with anyone who engages him, without any serious interest in sex. And Michel is a gorgeous, experienced swimmer whose clingy boyfriend one night disappears.
Stranger by the Lake moves at a languorous but steady pace, rendering its landscapes and characters beautifully. Writer-director Alain Guiraudie is remarkably direct in depicting the sex lives of his characters. But the sex that many filmmakers build to is where Guiraduie begins. His characters' hidden depths and personalities, their darknesses, courage, obsessions are ultimately what truly fascinate Guiraudie; I don't remember being so artfully absorbed into characters in quite the way Guiraudie pulls off. Such depths does it plumb in its characters that we wind up looking into ourselves.
It is very much a film blanc, its menace lurking not in the shadows but naked in front of our very eyes, illuminated and obscured in the bare sunlight. But when the night finally falls, it falls hard.