Film Three-Quarterly: Stranger by the Lake (2013)

strangerlake title


Stranger by the Lake, Alain Guiraudie’s hypnotic, dreamlike thriller set at a cruising spot for gays sometime vaguely in the early ‘90s, made many best-of lists for 2014, including Film Comment. It’s now on Netflix, where I watched it one lunchtime (not the best time to watch a mysterious thriller, I admit).

Anyway, the question for us is: does a French, experimental, gay serial killer film follow the three-quarters rule of structure? Oui bien sûr!

The opening frame of the film: a parking lot that tells us who's there to cruise.
The opening frame of the film: a parking lot that tells us who’s there to cruise. The haphazard parking reflects the assorted interest/disinterested gaze of the random men.

Stranger by the Lake stays in one location for the whole film, a shore of a lake where gay men go to cruise for sex. Having found a partner, they go back into the forest that overlooks the lake for an anonymous fuck. And there’s a parking lot. That’s about it. Cutting between these locations, day after day, Guiraudie creates a rhythm that makes its subtle changes all that more shocking. (After repeated shots of the parking lot filled with cars, a shot of an empty lot said everything it needed to in the murder’s aftermath.)

This is a 96 minute film, with quarters set at 24, 48, and 72 minutes. Let’s check them out.

Quarter 1
Quarter 1

The first quarter ends with the aftermath of the murder. Franck, though attracted to the handsome and porny looking Michael (check that moustache!), watches from afar as the object of affection drowns his current partner, Pascal. Michel, thinking nobody has seen him–it’s late after all–swims back to shore and puts his clothes on. Franck’s stunned but calm response sets up the dangerous lust that sets the plot on its way: Yes, Michel is a murderer, but on the other hand, Franck now sees a chance to get with him.

Middle of the film

And so that happens. The midpoint, no surprise, is when Franck and Michel consummate said lust in the forest. This screenshot, like the previous one, continues the theme of voyeurism, but where one was a POV, this one is an unmotivated shot from the camera. Not only that, but it looks like we’re looking down a telescope. (I could also say barrel of a gun, but there are no guns in this film).

Franck is now complicit in the murder now by his silence, and when he is questioned by a detective he covers for Michel. Franck also does his best to hide his incriminating knowledge from Michel. For the third act, Franck continues seeing Michel, while feeling worse and worse as a person. (There’s also a mirroring subplot about a developing friendship between Franck and a homely, ostensibly straight divorcee Henri who hangs out beyond the “gay zone” but whose observations of all the characters is right on.

Quarter 3

Our third quarter arrives at the breakup of Franck and Michel. Asked by Michel if Franck thinks he killed Pascal, Franck lies. (Michael asks this with his back to Franck.) Michel essentially puts his shorts on and walks out of the relationship. Franck’s pathetic reaching out to him as he gets up to leave shows that Franck’s still in love, and will set the film on its path to its violent, but ambiguous conclusion.

The final frame - Franck in a world of darkness
The final frame – Franck in a world of darkness

I’d be interested to compare the structure of “Stranger by the Lake” to a straight erotic thriller (of the early ‘90s, for example) with a strong femme fatale. Basic Instinct comes to mind, but for that film, the question of whether or not Sharon Stone’s character is a killer is in question right to the end.

Stranger by the Lake
Written and directed by Alain Guiraudie
Edited by Jean-Christophe Hym

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