Cascading slivers of light reflecting off the waves of a large body of water has taken on dark tones in the French cinema. In Philippe Grandrieux’s Sombre (1998), an experimental thriller, the day for night effect casts the world in varying stages of darkness. The predatory killer of the film stands above prospective victims (above a body of water), the silver specs of water blinding, cloaking his profile in darkness. The darkness of light, able to blind and distort, sheds discomfort on what should be a happy scene.
Alain Guiraudie, director of L’inconnu du lac, employs a similar use of light and water for his sexual thriller. In stark contrast to some of the more difficult rhetoric on race and sexuality present in other French extremist cinema, Guiraudie’s treatment of homosexuality is stark and sensitive. The insecure masculinity of Gaspar Noé is a distant memory, as Guiraudie creates a sexy and introspective vision of male sexual desire. Set in an uncertain time period where gay men still need to hide their identity, most of the film’s action takes place at a popular hook-up spot near a quiet beach. A predator exists among them and men start to turn up murdered. Caught between fear and desire, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) witnesses a murder but can’t resist the draw of the man he believes is the killer.
Most of the action takes place in the day, or at least before the sun sets. The beach, where men lounge naked in the woods where they hook up, is nearly always brightened by summer. Men wander through the woods, which is an eerie image, but the sense of play and camaraderie downplays any sinister undertones. It is refreshing to see a film about sex and murder brought into the light. The frankness of the sexual scenes, which doesn’t shy away from climaxing penises, is presented in the honest-to-god sunshine: it is liberating. But, that liberation exposes many characters in the film to danger. This haven where they are able to express their true self — safe from the judgement of normal society — suddenly becomes a place of death.
There are few examples in the world of cinema that so poetically articulate George Bataille’s connection between eroticism and death as in L’inconnu du lac. The movie toys so perfectly with how sexual pleasure is heightened with the threat of mortality. Death is the final taboo as it relates to sex, and ultimately the only one that seems unlikely to be transcended. Religious and cultural mores may shift and change, but our fear of death (even when we are pushed by self-destructive impulses) remains consistent. This push and pull between the impulse of survival versus pleasure can be found at heart of Guiraudie’s work. It’s not so much that Franck wants to die, I don’t think he does, but he can’t resist the lure of mortality. We will all die, some sooner than later, but staring death in the eye and living is maybe the most powerful high, an ecstatic moment of temporary immortality.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.