LFF 2013: 'Stranger by the Lake' review

★★★★☆
A hidden beach at the lapping edges of a glorious lake provides the sole setting for Alain Guiraudie's exceptional, erotically-charged French thriller Stranger by the Lake (2013) (released through Peccadillo Pictures next year). Having scooped a couple of awards earlier in the year at Cannes, it now arrives as the gala screening in the London Film Festival' 'Dare' strand replete with woozy visuals, heady passion, and an atmosphere of overwhelming suspense. The graphic gay sex will undoubtedly hog the headlines, but there's an awful lot more going on beneath the calm sun-dappled water than initially meets the eye.

In a shot that will be repeated during the film to deftly escalate tension, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) pulls up in a secluded car park. He makes his was down to the beach which, strewn with bronzed - and oft naked - men, is revealed as a local cruising spot. Men sunbathe, swim in the aqua, and then retire to the overlooking forest to pair off for casual sex, or alternatively just watch. Franck spends most days in this idyll and strikes up a touching friendship with rotund, non-Cruiser, Henri (Patrick d'Assumçao) whilst pursuing the unavailable Michel (Christophe Paou). However, an abhorrent event shatters the serenity of their environs and draws Franck into a thrilling yet perilous affair with Michel.

Never venturing away from the lake's shoreline, Stranger by the Lake plants itself firmly within this gay community creating an atmosphere not unlike it visual aesthetic. Claire Mathon's picturesque photography and the narrative's languorous repetition combine with the isolated locale to create a dreamlike quality. They are concurrently shot-through with a superb clarity of focus that sees each of the spot's inhabitants to be drawn with skilful precision, regardless of their screentime, and never allows the underlying tension to dissipate. Issues of gay culture are touched upon throughout, with the film treating its homoeroticism in a refreshingly frank manner. The investigating detective is baffled by the conventions of the cruising scene, and the lack of intimacy it affords, but no judgements are offered on the enclosed sexual proclivities as much as questions raised.

Instead, Stranger by the Lake centres on Franck's warped love for Michel and the dark places to which it has the potential to lead him. Amidst the carnal encounters, and unrelated slow-burning menace, lurks a fantastically pitched comic streak: a lakeside regular with a penchant for masturbating in the bushes when watching Franck; the detective's fusion of Clouseau and Columbo; Henri's humorous fear of hidden underwater predators. Some audiences will undeniably baulk at the thought of the explicit sexual content, including the film's infamous 'money shots', but these are merely minor components of a potent cocktail and should not dissuade anyone from seeking this out. Come for the sex, but stay for an excellent psychological thriller that remains gripping until its final, desperately intoxicating frame.

The 57th BFI London Film Festival takes place from 9-20 October, 2013. For more of our LFF 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.

Ben Nicholson

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