“Nothing I’ve seen at Cannes so far—not even the current Palme d’Or favorite, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s button-cute parenthood drama Like Father, Like Son—has, to my ear, pushed the end-credits clap-o-meter quite as far into the red as Alain Guiraudie’s Un Certain Regard entry Stranger by the Lake,” begins Guy Lodge at In Contention. “Elated whoops and whistles greeted this minimalist French thriller’s final fade to black: not the reaction you’d usually expect from a civilian festival crowd for a work of such sleek, stark nihilism as to prompt visions of Robert Bresson adapting Patricia Highsmith. All of which leads me to at least one conclusion: audiences out there are really starved for gay sex.”
At the AV Club, Mike D’Angelo notes that “the storyline is pretty simple: A hunky young dude [Franck, played by Pierre Deladonchamps] who frequents an unofficial nude beach/cruising venue falls for a mustachioed himbo [Michel, played by Christophe Paou], and his ardor doesn’t cool even after he sees Mustache Man deliberately drown his lover. From that point on, the film radiates a palpable sense of unease, as the new relationship between murderer and silent witness grows ever more tense and an investigator questions lakeside regulars about the mysterious corpse…. At one point, the investigator tells our hero that he doesn’t really understand this gay community’s behavior, remarking that they talk about love but seem to have a bizarre way of demonstrating it, and every word reflected my own befuddled thoughts, both about this film and about other cruising narratives like Tsai Ming-liang’s Good Bye Dragon Inn and Jacques Nolot’s La Chatte À Deux Têtes (which was called Porn Theater in the U.S.). Sometimes, it’s best to admit that you’re just not on the right wavelength.”
“Guiraudie is unfortunately little-known stateside beyond a devoted few,” notes Time Out New York‘s Keith Uhlich, “and it’s doubtful this mesmerizingly odd mix of queer-culture ethnography and Hitchcockian thriller will win him many converts. Consider that a wholehearted recommendation…. Go in aware that much of the sex is unsimulated, then revel in the ways Guiraudie uses his rigorous perspective, in addition to an always gorgeously-composed widescreen frame, to normalize behavior that is anathema in polite society. (It’s little surprise that the work of Georges Bataille is one of the director’s acknowledged influences.) But also go in knowing that there are very real, very potent emotions underlying every action, be it an explicit sex act, a lingering embrace, or a horrible realization that meting out death does not necessarily preclude love.”
“Sex and death have of course been closely connected for gay men since the onset of AIDS,” writes Boyd van Hoeij in Variety, “and the men here do have unprotected sex—perhaps because they find themselves in the heat of the moment, but also out of a possible longing for extreme intimacy. If Franck is attracted by the potential danger that Michel represents, it suggests on a more metaphorical level that a close connection to anyone comes at the price of at least partial abandon to the other and the unknown.”
A “lovely return to form,” declares Geoff Andrew in a dispatch to Sight & Sound, adding that “for my money it could easily have stood its ground in the main competition.”
“Stranger by the Lake is voyeuristic, all right, but in a way that evokes the Hitchcock of Rear Window more than it does the Friedkin of Cruising,” writes EW‘s Owen Gleiberman. “Guiraudie clearly knows this world and is able to depict it in all its rituals and codes, its clandestine abandon, even its comedy (the guy who wants to stand around and watch everyone as he fondles himself is portrayed not as a ‘perv’ but as a lost imp)…. The weak link in Stranger by the Lake is Franck’s passive insistence on hiding Michel’s crime; it’s not, in the end, believable. And that’s why the movie, for all its intrigue and skill, lacks that full Hitchcockian string-tightening finesse. But when you emerge from it, you know that you’ve been somewhere raw and real.”
“The shore is not just the film’s backdrop but a character in itself, and is even the primary subject,” writes Adam Cook in the Notebook. “The forest takes on a labyrinthine dimension as men navigate through it in search of sexual encounters, with equal chances of embarrassment, disappointment, and pleasure. In isolating this location within its narrative, the film is emphasizing the way in which cruising is separate, to various degrees, from the characters’ lives.”
“Featuring pristine cinematography by Claire Mathon (Three Worlds) and delicately layered sound design by Nathalie Vidal (Beau Travail), Stranger by the Lake invites you into its alluring and peaceful world, only to gradually uncover the darkness beneath it,” writes Jordan Mintzer in the Hollywood Reporter. “Likewise, the naturalistic performances are extremely calm, even friendly, which makes the events depicted all the more unsettling.”
Updates, 5/19: Here’s “best movie of the festival so far,” wrote Michał Oleszczyk on Friday. It’s “so surprising in its shifts of tone that it keeps you guessing literally from scene to scene. It’s by turns sweet, sexy and suspenseful—and manages to create characters that stay with you long after the screening.”
Also at RogerEbert.com: “It’s rare to see a film as sexually graphic as Stranger by the Lake that succeeds in integrating this much explicit eroticism into the story without tipping over into porn,” writes Barbara Scharres. “Guiraudie succeeds in this because virtually everything that happens is dictated in one way or another by lust, erotic obsession, and the mechanics of desire. The intensity of the coupling is inextricably tied to the passion for the cover-up of the murder.”
Updates, 5/24: “Guiraudie may be one of the few voices to tread bravely in the footsteps of Derek Jarman with this latest film, transcending polite labels like homoeroticism for an honest, introspective, and even morbid portrait of normative tendencies in the sexual lives of gay men,” writes Eric Lavallee at Ioncinema.
Robert Koehler for the Film Society of Lincoln Center: “What was evident with That Old Dream That Moves ([Guiraudie’s 2001 feature debut] about the final days of an factory and the quietly developing relationship between two male workers) and is just as clear in his latest and possibly greatest film, Stranger by the Lake, is Guiraudie’s mastery at constructing a complete movie experience, integrating formal elements with fascinating themes that can drift unexpectedly into the mythic. As brilliantly as any living director I can think of, Guiraudie orchestrates a filmic dance of bodies in fascinating physical settings, coaxing comedy and surrealist strangeness out of seemingly thin air. For many in Cannes this year (particularly North American viewers), Guiraudie, despite actively making films since 1990, has been a discovery—and not a moment too soon.”
Update, 5/28: The Playlist‘s Jessica Kiang notes that, not only has Guiraudie won Best Director, the film’s also picked up “the independently awarded Queer Palm for best film with an LGBT focus, and it deserves all its plaudits, because while its graphic scenes of gay sex are what will grab headlines, what was most impressive to us was the film’s unique mood: Guiraudie creates an ambiance of eerie atmospherics that is at once crisp and observant, and oddly dreamlike, or nightmarish.”
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