Stranger By The Lake (2013)

Although it may not seem like the most obvious setting for a cold-blooded murder, writer/director Alain Guiraudie makes a scenic, lakeside cruising spot for gay men the most frightening, claustrophic place imaginable, where everyone is a witness, in his slow-burning, uninhibited and utterly engulfing thriller, Stranger By The Lake.

The French subtitles signal the first red flag, along with the strong 18-certificate rating for “real sex”, but the admittedly simple premise soon makes both points moot, as the film reveals itself to be far more than the sum of its parts, with the palpable tension unraveling at an agonising pace against a backdrop of lush, untouched countryside.

The hero of the piece is Franck (Deladonchamps, all adorable naïveté in spite of himself), a young man who goes to the lake for the same reason everyone else does. After becoming enamoured with the dashing Michel (Paou, rocking a ‘tache of which Tom Selleck would be envious), he stumbles upon a murder and, unable to confess to anyone, subsequently becomes the killer’s lover, thereby saddling himself with a horrible secret he must keep from the nosy local police and new friend Henri (d’Assumçao, wonderfully out of place and bemused throughout) who quickly notices something isn’t right. It’s a remarkably simple setup, which allows for many, many, many scenes of gratuitous male nudity (some of which may be too much for some to stomach), as Franck struggles with his conscience alongside his feelings for Michel. But, scratching beneath the surface, the fact that everything is shot in such an unapologetic, uninhibited manner is incredibly brave, and the sex scenes add an unavoidably realistic edge to the proceedings, also.

Although most of the action takes place in daylight, the film is incredibly dark and atmospheric, the tension built ever so slowly throughout, with scene after scene of seemingly innocuous conversations and romantic encounters, before everything is suddenly ratcheted up in a finale sequence that, both frustratingly and rather cleverly, leaves the conclusion up to the imagination.

The central performances carry the narrative, and sometimes clunky dialogue, so that the pace keeps moving along nicely even when nothing is really happening. A sharp edit would’ve made certain sequences a bit punchier, but overall the film is well-shot and the scenery is gorgeous throughout.

There’s no score to speak of, with only the wind rustling through the trees at certain key moments to signify how isolated the spot, and indeed Franck, is – a nice touch, considering how the lake is a character in itself, equal parts beautiful and ominous.

Everything is incredibly understated, but the premise is chilling in its simplicity and its realism. The murder itself isn’t even the centrepiece. It happens quickly, is vicious and quite shocking, adding to the idea that anything can happen in this setting, without anyone knowing or even caring.

The concept itself is quite novel, even in horror, which often deals with taboo subjects that other genres won’t touch. The only other film of note that dealt with similar themes was 2004’s Hellbent, which told the story of a gay-hunting serial killer, symbolised as the devil.

Naturally, Stranger By The Lake is a far less in-your-face affair (although there is an awful lot of dick, as is to be expected) and it’s stronger for it. A stark, strange and very scary little film, that will puzzle, frighten and shock, it is well worth a look, especially as a palate-cleanser.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆

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