Classically constructed, as rigid in its construction of suspense as any recent thriller, Alain Guiraudie’s “Stranger by the Lake” (L’inconnu du lac), is a masterful work, uncluttered yet lush, formally mechanistic, yet always surprising. It also takes its location, its construction of sexuality, as commonplace. Guiraudie’s movie is assuredly part and parcel of queer cinema, but also of the cinema of the quotidian, of the everyday. At a remote lakeside somewhere in France—which Guiraudie says is in the provinces of the South, where he grew up—men come each sunny summer day to sun, to cruise, to meet, to converse or to exchange gestures and, in one case, to murder. The scene is rustic, verdant, removed from the outside world. There is the sun and the sea, men in states of undress and arousal, the caress of wind on the water, the wind through the trees from rustle to rush, the gentle murmurs of those who move from shore to forest to realize their acquaintance. We could be near a city, far from care, or simply in an idealized utopia, at least until a man is drowned. The surroundings are the most accomplished sinister landscaping since “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” and Guiraudie uses images of the water similarly: a shadow falls across its surface and dark green serrates atop lighter green, a thrilling geometric diagonal that represents its psychological moment perfectly. In a conversation in Cinema Scope magazine, Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues pleased Guiraudie by correctly calling his film “a documentary thriller.” Guiraudie forgoes a score, but the sound design is as effective as Bernard Herrmann’s to Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”: the wind in the trees can suggest passion, anger, retribution. Does the world reflect troubled inner states or are the characters merely in sync with nature? Insects trill, hum or buzz at very specific moments, singly and in chorus. (There is nudity throughout, but several explicitly sexual scenes are plainly transacted by body doubles.) With Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou, Patrick d’Assumçao. 101m. (Ray Pride)
“Stranger by the Lake” opens February 21 at the Music Box.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.