Stranger by the Lake is the sort of film that Hitchcock might have made had he not been bound by the Hays code and had he been on board with filming a lot of explicit gay sex. It’s a haunting and captivating erotic-thriller, set on the shore of a lake in France that’s part nude-beach, part cruising ground.
Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a good-looking but sorta listless guy visits the lake with some regularity, and falls deeply in lust with Michel (Christophe Paou). Michel notices Franck too, but doesn’t pay him too much attention due to his nagging boyfriend/fuck-buddy. Franck also strikes up an odd friendship with Henri (Patrick D’Assumçao), a quiet man who goes to the lake but does not sunbathe, and does not cruise.
One evening when the cruisers have left the lake, Franck witness Michel drowning his boyfriend. He hides in the bushes as he watches Michel emerge from the lake, gather his thoughts, then leave nonchalantly. The next day, when Michel strikes up a conversation with Franck, it’s clear there’s sparks between them, but at what potential cost to Franck? How compelling is lust over danger? How do you fall in love with a man you know to be a murderer? Does it make him all the more attractive in some twisted way?
While it may sound a fairly standard premise for an erotic-thriller, the way Stranger by the Lake executes is story is astounding. It’s a movie that is not particularly confronting or disturbing, but stays with you long after the credits have rolled.
This is owed largely to a cast who never put a foot wrong, delivering superb naturalistic performances that never give in to drama or cliché. Deladonchamps provides just enough naïveté to Franck to make him vulnerable, which jars with the fact that he enters willingly into a relationship with a murderer, whereas Paou, a Chad Douglas-looking pinnacle of masculinity, crafts an intimidating force with just enough softness to him that you understand how easy it is for Franck to be trapped under his spell.
The chemistry between Paou and Deladonchamps is dangerous and electric, and together they encapsulate the film’s theme of danger and desire, how the two are sometimes inextricably linked and how one might seem more potent because of the other. To call these performances “brave” isn’t an understatement either – the wardrobe department for the film must have worked a grand total of 10 minutes, given how much time the characters spend completely and starkly nude.
The setting is at turns claustrophobic and beautifully open. The lake is a scenic wonder, with Claire Mathon’s cinematography capturing the crystalline water and lush vegetation of the surrounding woods in crisp detail. However, we never leave this setting. The furthest we see of it is the carpark on the edge, trapping us in the space, which becomes unnerving after we see Michel drown his lover – we know that despite the beauty of the surroundings, there’s a body waiting to be found somewhere in that idyllic vista.
Another great strength of the film is in how matter-of-factly the story is told. We completely understand Franck’s attraction to Michel without any fanfare about it; we understand how he’s pulled between his desire and his apprehension, and how perhaps the danger Michel represents makes him just a little more appealing to Franck, without it ever being voiced as such. Henri is a complex character in his own right, not just a sounding board for Franck to discuss his feelings with.
It’s perhaps this matter-of-factness that helped the film skate by unnoticed by the usual moral guardians. Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the film is how uncontroversial its release was regarded, with little to no furore from the conservative section decrying its explicit sex or its endorsement of a dangerous/illegal practice in cruising (even the characters acknowledge this, with little excuses offered).
It’s hard to convey the allure of this film. It’s legitimately insidious in how it gets under your skin, the final moments simultaneously tragic and terrifying, with just a hint of hopelessness. The journey to those final moments is captivating, the central premise of Franck’s desire for Michel despite Michel’s murderous tendencies always simmering below a frank and passionate surface; this is a movie that understands the conflation of sex and death and how that’s both attractive and terrifying, macabre and erotic.