Director Alain Guiraudie's offbeat psychodrama Stranger by the Lake unfolds entirely in one picturesque locale -- a body of inland water in France, with banks that function as a cruising hot spot for gay nudists. Protagonist Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) routinely turns up at the site to pick up random men. As the story opens, Franck crosses paths with two new acquaintances. Henri (Patrick d'Assumçao) is a sad-sack, middle-aged bisexual man who strikes up a platonic friendship with Franck and nurtures a latent attraction to him, while Michel (Christophe Paou) is a tall, muscle-bound, and hirsute gay Romeo who becomes one of Franck's lovers. The drama takes an unforeseeable twist when Franck accidentally observes Michel drowning a male partner in the lake late one evening -- though Michel doesn't realize that Franck is watching. Curiously, though, in lieu of reporting the crime to the police or confronting Michel, the knowledge of the homicide intensifies Franck's desire to have sex with him. As they copulate day and night, Franck wonders (along with us) if he will become Michel's next victim, especially when Michel invites Franck to join him for an erotic swim after dark with no one watching. A snaky police inspector named Damroder (Jérôme Chappatte) turns up after Michel's lover's body is retrieved from the water, and begins asking questions.
At least on a surface level, the basic ingredients for this movie may seem one-dimensional and exploitative. It has enough hardcore sex and nudity to qualify as a gay porno film, as well as startling bursts of graphic, bloody violence. Yet it is far better than these grind-house elements would suggest. The whole scenario poses a key question that the movie never explicitly limns, one that instead lingers gently beneath the surface: What impulses would compel Franck to deliberately put his life and safety in the hands of someone who may be a homophobic serial killer? Is he suicidal, masochistic, crazy, or a little bit of all three? The answer lies closest to a masochistic impulse -- the film uses the Franck/Michel pairing to travel inside of the areas where extreme lust and suicidal danger overlap. Now that homosexual couples are more widely accepted in mainstream society, how can a male lover get the same degree of erotic charge from verboten activity that he would have, say, 50 or 60 years ago? The answer, as these particular men have defined it, seems to involve aggressively pushing as close to the life/death boundary as possible and embracing a high-adrenaline, tightwire situation. By the end of this picture, the outcome of the Franck/Michel relationship scarcely even matters: Death, fear, and intense eroticism build to a climax and hang in the air, inseparably entwined. The casting of Paou particularly helps Guiraudie to achieve this sensation for the audience. With his barrel chest, sinewy muscles, greasy mop of black hair, handlebar mustache, and fixed, eerie leer, Michel resembles nothing so much as some sort of malevolent Greek god, dredged up from the underworld to fell Franck with an act of sexually fueled annihilation. In this sense, the movie takes on some of the same qualities as one of the bacchanalian myths; Michel could easily have been a creation of Euripedes.
One should note that the dynamic evident in the Franck/Michel pairing is one of two very different takes on gay attraction that the movie hands to us; we also get the unconsummated Franck/Henri relationship, which paints romantic chemistry between men as a kind of warm, chaste courtship, buoyed by loquacious and witty banter. The two male pairings in this movie contrast neatly with one another, allowing Guiraudie to explore various types of attraction.
On its own strange terms, the film is successful and oddly affecting thanks to the skilled artistry on display, but it is also difficult to imagine actually recommending the picture to anyone. Though beautifully made, it's such a voyeuristic, lurid, angry, depressing experience that the average viewer will walk away appreciating it far more than really enjoying it.