If director Alain Giraudie, winner of the best director gong in the “Un Certain Regard” section of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, has read the manual on how to create a gripping thriller in the year 2013, he must have thrown it immediately into the eponymous lake of his new movie, L’Inconnu du Lac (Stranger by the Lake). You won’t find any gut-wrenching car chases, computer-generated imagery, multinational locations (the entire film takes place around the same lake), thumping soundtrack (in fact, no musical soundtrack at all) or conventional love interest (the entire cast is male, and the gay sex scenes leave little to the imagination). And yet, Giraudie has produced a work just as mesmerizing as and with much more substance than most generic thrillers.
Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a young gay man who goes to the lake to swim, sunbathe and cruise in the forest beside the lake, becomes transfixed by Michel (Christophe Paou) but is disappointed to see that he is involved with another man. One evening, lingering beside the lake just before nightfall, after all the other bathers have left, Franck witnesses what first seems to be horseplay in the water between Michel and his friend but then turns out to be Michel deliberately drowning the other man.
A lesser director would have chosen to focus the camera on Franck’s shocked expression, but Giraudie films the scene as Franck would see it, without changing perspective or distance. By deciding neither to report the murder nor confront Michel, Franck becomes complicit in the act, even more so as he begins a sexual relationship with Michel, who will only have sex by the lake and who refuses to spend the night with Franck at his home.
The tension of the evolving story is brilliantly sustained, both by a sinister investigator who appears at various times of the day and night from behind the bushes and rocks surrounding the lake and by Michel inviting Franck for a swim in the lake at the same time of day that he had drowned his earlier lover.
Deladonchamps in the central role manages to retain both candor and likability; there cannot be many principal actors willing to be filmed in the nude for almost the entire duration of a movie. The scenes in which he converses with Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), a solitary older man, are particularly touching. Paou is both charming and menacing as Michel, even though he looks as if he stepped out of the 1970s with his uncanny resemblance to Tom Selleck.
But it is the director’s choice never to move away from the eerie setting of the lake, with the continual sound of the wind rustling in the trees, that gives this film such a distinctive ambiance, worth so much more than the explosions, chases and fight scenes in the big-budget thrillers so popular in both the American and the French movie industry.