There’s something extraordinarily self-contained about the non-descript, scrawny-pined beach and parking lot in Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake. The area’s caché – it’s an enclave for gay-cruising – is revealed quickly. However, this French lakeside enclosure also evokes a mythical subterranean realm with a strong Hades-Plutonic overtone.
Men of all ages, shapes and sophistication come and go in this microcosm where, with any luck, they retreat into the semi-verdant area beyond the rocks for private and anonymous assignations with willing partners. Essentially the men here mutually pluck each other for sex, which strongly parallels Hades’ spotting Persephone picking flowers in a field. Hades liked what he saw, and escorted her below the earth. Similarly, these lakeside groves all but shout “Underworld!” to the men who become interchangeable captors-and-captives, eventually re-emerging from the shadows, like Persephone, and rejoining the world of light.
Into this web saunters Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a sincere, well mannered and not particularly flashy young man. In between looking to score, he chats with an isolated and pudgy beach goer, Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), who’s just come out of a heterosexual relationship but is curious, from afar, about the gay lifestyle. And then, there’s Michel (Christophe Paou), a mustachio’d fellow with the ruddy good looks and charisma that should sharply signal danger to anyone within eye shot.
Of course, experiencing Mars-fueled risk is exactly what those sexually inviting pines are for. However, Michel’s bent is way more dangerous. Early in the movie, Franck, who’s hidden from view, witnesses Pluto-suffused Michel – he’s all about control but doesn’t tolerate this trait in others – drown a rather possessive lover in the perpetually shimmering lake.
Instead of fleeing these symbolic depths – both trees and water consume in differently diabolical ways – Franck is turned on by the Martian danger. He and Michel begin their affair, based on inequality of knowledge: Michel doesn’t realize that Franck knows he’s a killer. When the corpse is found, an inspector (Jérôme Chappatte) comes prowling, and begins to single out Franck as a suspect.
The movie’s sex scenes, which are graphic, are, in the end, mere backdrops. The focal point here is the movie’s incisive depiction of how two men, psychologically and physically drawn to each other, explore the shifting controls associated with their union. Ultimately, in Stranger by the Lake, the question is who the stranger of the title truly is. Ruggedly handsome Michel? Or Franck, who’s a stranger to himself and profoundly unaware of the death-defying (Pluto), sexual (Mars) depths he’s willing to go?
Astrology Film Rating: ♂ ♇ (Mars, Pluto)