Earlier this week I had the good fortune to catch a screening of Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger By The Lake at the Harvard Film Archive, which was followed by a discussion with the director. The film is a psychological thriller that trades scintillatingly on the fantasy scenarios of gay pornography; I was particularly struck by its evocation of Wakefield Poole’s Boys in the Sand (and was surprised to hear Guiraudie claim during the Q&A that he was unfamiliar with Poole’s work). Like the first act of Boys, Stranger By The Lake is set entirely at a beach and an adjacent wooded area where gay men of various ages and body types come to cruise, swim, sunbathe, gaze, chat. The film’s main character, Franck—attractive, well-built, congenial—gradually develops intimate relationships with two other regulars, one of them a gentle, soft-bodied man, curious to explore his sexuality in middle age, who sits alone near the edge of the trees, the other a tall, dark, handsome sex god (he looks like a young Chad Douglas) who confidently prowls the beach. Franck’s safety is compromised when he becomes involved with the latter of the two men, even after having witnessed him drown another of his sex partners in the lake.
Guiraudie’s film unfolds in an erotic dream space that seems to exist outside of time, where the only sounds are the gentle lapping of the waves on the shore and the rustling of the trees in the wind. It’s an example of what Steven Marcus has called pornotopia: the space of sexual fantasy. Guiraudie suggestively lulls us into this dream state, then makes it into a kind of nightmare, as the threat of violence repeatedly intrudes upon his characters’ pleasure. As a plot, the film doesn’t go very far—but it does go far in playing with the notion, which continues to persist in the wake of AIDS, that sex is nearly always tinged with risk, and that sexual desire is more than often haunted by degrees of uncertainty and fear. They’re the kinds of ideas that have long structured straight female sexual narratives, from fairy tales and Gothic romances to soap operas and Fifty Shades of Grey, but they’re only just now beginning to play themselves out, it seems, in narratives of gay male sexuality.
The film is also noteworthy for its mostly successful attempt to integrate images of unsimulated “hard core” sex into an otherwise traditional narrative. Stranger’s sex scenes are even more graphic than those seen last year in Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color, but they’re not as protracted, and they’re folded into the film altogether less jarringly. In talking with the audience Monday evening Guiraudie expressed a wish to continue experimenting with explicit sexual images in future films. Between the films of Guiraudie, Kechiche, Travis Mathews—not to mention similar efforts by Andrew Haigh and Lena Dunham—might we be witnessing the beginnings of a franker, rawer on-screen eroticism?