I probably shouldn't even tell you that Stranger by the Lake is a thriller, since so much of this beguiling film's beauty is in how it sneaks up on you, the way genre elements quietly insinuate their way into the story. Set entirely at a lakeside hot spot for cruising gay men, Alain Guiraudie's film starts off like an odd romance, maybe even a mild comedy, before turning into a mystery and finally becoming … briefly, tantalizingly, something else.
The film follows Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a young man about whom we know practically nothing other than the fact that he spends many a summer day lounging naked around a placid, sheltered beach where men casually follow each other into the nearby woods for some anonymous (and, as presented onscreen, explicit) sex. At first, the film centers around Franck’s conversations with Henri (Patrick D’Assumcao), an older man getting over a breakup, who sits apart from the rest of the beach’s regulars and seems to have had it with the whole love and sex thing. Guiraudie isn’t much for context — it takes a few minutes into their first conversation before we even realize that Franck and Henri don’t know each other — but he has the confidence to lead us along the garden path without letting us know exactly where we’re going. The two men chat, Franck goes off in pursuit of a potential encounter, then he returns and they chat some more. Occasionally, Franck goes for a swim.
This could all probably get very tedious very quickly, but to go with the naturalism of his actors, Guiraudie has an offhand, painterly style that captures these men at rest in ways that are elegant without ever feeling composed. The director rarely comes in close to the characters, opting instead to regard them in full or wide shots: This not only makes their bodies ever-present, but also creates a strange aura of unknowability. The film is observant, yet, despite all that nudity and sex, rarely intimate. If you think about it, so, too, are these men, looking for sex but rarely seeking an actual connection. “You stay together till dusk, without knowing each other’s names, or exchanging phone numbers?” a bewildered outsider asks of Franck at one point.
Actually, Guiraudie does strike a note of intimacy when Franck becomes more involved with Michel (Christophe Paou), a mustachioed hunk whom he'd been scoping out. The sex between them gradually becomes more affectionate, even passionate, as Franck falls harder and harder. (Stranger by the Lake doesn't try to titillate, but it’s also not dry or grim in its presentation of sex.)
The director’s subtle, unassuming style forces us to sharpen your eyes and ears — a good thing, because as we notice little things, the film’s tone becomes increasingly ominous. As Franck pulls away in his car every night, seemingly the last person to leave the beach, there’s a red car sitting parked there, its inhabitant nowhere to be seen. Such details accumulate, and suddenly, we’re watching a much different film.
That said, as a thriller, Stranger by the Lake isn’t exactly pulse-pounding. You sense that there’s more going on here than just the basics of plot; if the film had been made in the nineties, we’d all be saying it was an allegory for AIDS. In truth, Guiraudie seems more interested in what lies on the other side of the mystery. Can the anonymous idyll of this beach end in anything but emptiness and despair? If these men don’t get too close for fear of getting hurt, the director suggests that there might be good reason for that — and the film gains both suspense and poignancy as it leaves its sun-dappled world behind and plunges us into night. The mystery may be resolved, but the suspense and uncertainty remain. And so, Guiraudie ends his film on a cold, almost cruel note of existential solitude that just might, if you let it, break your heart.