• Peter Marra

Now Playing...Stranger By the Lake at THE FILM LAB


When it comes to recognizable horror movie mantras “Don’t go into the woods” ranks pretty high on the list of deterrents. Yet the 2013 French thriller Stranger By the Lake (L'Inconnu du lac) notably frames ‘the woods’ as a site of both physical danger and erotic desire. In the film, directed by Alain Guiraudie, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) passes his summer days at a gay cruising beach, dividing his attention between Henri (Patrick D’Assumçao), a kindly older man with whom he shares daily conversation, and Michel (Christophe Paou), a dangerous stranger who piques Franck’s sexual curiosity. Stranger By the Lake premiered at the Cannes Film Festival where it won both the Best Director prize and the Queer Palm award. The film provides a limited scope of action, showing only the daily exploits of the cruising beach and adjacent woods, where sexual encounters occur. It also includes footage of unsimulated sex achieved through the use of body doubles.

Queer characters have often figured as mad killers in everything from erotic thrillers (Dressed to Kill) to teen slashers (Sleepaway Camp), cinematic traditions Stranger By the Lake builds upon and reshapes. While slashers commonly depict the arrival of a figurative “other” (a Michael, Freddy, or Jason) to an otherwise heteronormative white middle class enclave, Stranger By the Lake stringently relocates its tale to a queer space. We never see the lives the men at the beach return to each night. Our only view is of this queer and sexual terrain. Where the suburban cul de sacs and summer camps of the slasher treat sex as something titillating and gossip-worthy, the talk all the babysitters’ talk on their way home from school, sex in Stranger By the Lake can feel downright mundane, a condition of its context rather than an exception. This repetitiveness is reinforced through a reoccurring static high-angle long-shot depicting the daily arrivals and departures of the men’s cars at the cruising beach, as if punching the clock.

Scholars of the slasher, including Jack Halberstam and Carol J. Clover, speak about the killer’s violent approach having a sexual connotation. A representative scene is a moment in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 where Leatherface struggles to engage the motor of his chainsaw, leaving him tugging at his dangling saw appendage in a moment of baffled pseudo-erectile dysfunction. Conversely, an early voyeuristic moment in Stranger By the Lake spies upon two men splashing in the lake in an exchange that seems playful at first, but then turns sour when only one man returns to shore. Where preceding slashers suffuse their violence with sexual undertones, the sex that runs unfettered throughout Stranger By the Lake appears always suffused with, and sometimes indiscernible from, violence.

Ultimately, the film is most succinctly described as an exploration of why gay men go into the woods. Especially when the know a killer lurks there. It draws on the quietly observed moments of the everyday – lovers’ spats, small talk, chronic masturbators blocking out the sun. But it also accumulates dread with every turn, building to a stunning finale that speaks to a desperate, unebbing undercurrent of willful self-endangerment. Leaving for conversation whether Franck’s sexual attraction is driven by a need for danger or merely persists in spite of it.

Stranger By the Lake screens at The Film Lab this weekend as the concluding film in the series Le Cinéma Érotique. Tickets are available at https://thefilmlab.org.

Thu, Jan 23, 9:00; Sat, Jan 25, 7:00; Sun, Jan 26, 7:00

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