“He remembered to what excesses, into what traps and nightmares, his loneliness had driven him…” — James Baldwin, Another Country
Who was it that first paired sex and death in a work of art? From my college English courses, I dimly recall John Donne working the conceit into his poetry. Something about a mistress and a flea. It must go back farther, perhaps even to the dawn of the written word. The dual taboos are just too compelling when linked. We instinctively understand them as both competing and complementary. For what is more death-like than the oblivion, the release, sought in the arms of a lover?
This is certainly true of film. From Double Indemnity to Vertigo to the recent Elle, the thriller has thrived on the heady tonic of desire and violence. One recent entry into the conversation is Alain Guiraudie’s chilling 2013 film Stranger by the Lake (L’inconnu du lac), a laconic thriller fixed in the best of Hitchcockian traditions. But while Hitchcock understood guilt as the catalyst that made sex and death such a potent brew, Stranger by the Lake updates the formula and implies that loneliness and the basic need for intimacy is the third ingredient.
The film centers on a young man named Franck (Pierre Delandonchamps) and his days at a gay cruising spot on the shore of an unnamed lake. Transactions there are as simple as the setting, revealed in gorgeous inserts of clouds, sun-dappled water and whispering trees. Naked sunbathers loll on the beach, and the mutually interested pair take off for the nearby woods. But willing as Franck might be for a quick tryst among the pines — his youth and beauty make that easy — his is not a single-minded pursuit.
More often than not, Franck ends up in conversation with middle-aged and pot-bellied Henri (Patrick d’Assumcao). Something about their rapport satisfies Franck. With his arms perpetually rested atop a protruding stomach as he observes the goings-on from a slight remove, Henri comes across as a shoreside Buddha. His idle talk provides a running commentary on the film’s themes. In an early scene, he warns the post-swim Franck of the giant catfish said to hunt the local waters. “They’ve never attacked a human,” Franck says. “That doesn’t mean it can’t happen,” replies Henri.
Don’t all young people disdain and dismiss such caution? A second more experienced gentleman later won’t let Frack go down on him without a condom. “Aren’t you worried about HIV?” the man asks. To which Franck answers with a blasé “No.”
Risk-taking, the insouciance of youth, is one thing. But a darker urge — the death-wish as Freud termed it, which drives a person towards extinction — is another. Viewers quickly learn Franck’s casual disregard for his health is the latter, rather than a young person’s confidence that the days will go on and a body will last forever.
Franck ultimately trails a slightly older, mustachioed Michel (Christophe Paou). Athletic and tanned, Michel resembles no one if not Tom Selleck. (A more ominous association might equate his looks with the male aesthetic popular during the decade when HIV was running unchecked through the gay community.) Unfortunately, Michel has a boyfriend (Francois Labarthe), causing Franck to pine away like a teenager. He even utters the cliché, “The guys I like are always taken.”
Then in a searing concentration of images and scenes, the film lays out its ideas on loneliness and the romance of death.
First, there’s an explicitly depicted sexual encounter between Franck and another man. The scene immediately following, shot at dusk, is a nearly four-minute long take from Franck’s point of view as he watches Michel drown his boyfriend. Instead of recoiling, Franck can’t look away, with his expression mirroring the awed stare of a person witnessing an approaching thunderstorm or a house in flames.
Does Franck abandon the lake as the home of a psychopath? At least call the police? No. Incredibly, he returns the following day as if nothing had happened. Here is the third moment that’s crucial to, and completes, Guiraudie’s thesis. Most of the men arrive at the lake singly in cars. This ritual has already been shown several times. But only now is it apparent that the angles and distances, without variation, are identical to Franck’s view of the murder.
The implication of the sequence is clear: loneliness drives the search for intimacy or mere physical contact. The need for either can override, or even inspire a romance with, the fear of death.
Franck is therefore helpless when Michel initiates an affair. Like a plunge into deep, cold water, his obsession is sharp and immediate. Despite knowing Michel is a killer, Franck repeatedly pleads that they meet places other than the lake — to have dinner with him, to fall asleep alongside him. Franck’s need for Michel is so acute that he lies about what he knows of the murder to a police inspector (Jerome Chappatte) who comes around asking questions after the body is discovered.
There are even moments when it appears Franck actively goads Michele, attempting to replicate the scenario of the murder, the way an insecure lover will anger a partner to test the strength of their bond. In this case, it’s Franck asking if Michele wants him enough not to kill him. Only the desperately alone would believe the question to be rational.
Waiting for the answer makes Stranger by the Lake an incredibly tense watch and propels the film to its remarkable conclusion. It’s made all the more fraught by the hot-house setting. The movie never departs the lake’s environs. Isolated from the outside world, the universe of the film feels beyond conventional reality. Anything can happen here.
Many thrillers take a dive at explaining aberrant behavior, whether it’s mental illness, victim trauma or wartime experiences. This places the audience at a remove from the killer-sadist-malignant personality. It assures them they are not of a piece. The most effective films in the genre leave out causes. Instead, they scare viewers by suggesting evil and psychosis might surface anywhere, anytime, without reason.
But while we can be assured the murderer among us is rare, the terror of Stranger by the Lake rests in loneliness as a universal malady. None are immune. In us all lurks a potential Franck — desperate for intimacy, willing to risk oblivion for a moment’s embrace.
Stefen Styrsky (@Stefen_Styrsky) writes short stories and film reviews. His work has appeared in Amazon’s Day One, the Tahoma Literary Review, Number Eleven Magazine, Litbreak and The Offing, among other places. He has an MA in Fiction Writing from the Johns Hopkins University and lives in Washington, DC. His website is stefenstyrsky.com.