Stranger by the Lake is an ingenious French thriller set entirely on a rocky stretch of beach and its adjoining woods, where gay men come to sunbathe and cruise. The central character, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), is like a hunkier version of the young Roddy McDowall. He’s hungry for sex, but not with just anyone. Franck wants to be transported, moved to the place where unbridled pleasure melts into love. That’s why he can’t stop himself from going after Michel (Christophe Paou), a sporty dude with a Tom Selleck mustache (trust me, this looks a lot less dated on a French guy), even after he sees Michel drown his latest lover.
The movie is voyeuristic, sure, but in a way that evokes Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window more than William Friedkin’s Cruising. There are many shots of men sprawled naked on the beach, to the point that we become as used to it as they are, and the film lingers, sometimes explicitly, on random erotic encounters, the camera peering through the dense piney woods, surveying the hookups without judgment. The director, Alain Guiraudie, depicts this tribalistic hot zone with all its codes and rituals, its clandestine abandon, even its comedy.
We get to know the intimate geography of the cruising spot, which is at once hidden and out in the open. Franck befriends a pudgy middle-aged fellow who is always seated by himself (he’s played by the terrific Patrick D’Assumçao, who looks and acts like Gérard Depardieu’s dumpy brother), and there’s also a fun police inspector — a terse string bean of a guy who looks at these cruisers with seen-it-all sympathy. The film’s weak link is Franck’s passive insistence on hiding Michel’s crime, which works better as l’amour fou metaphor than as plausible drama. That’s why Stranger, for all its skill, isn’t as screw-tightening as it could be. But when you emerge from it, you know that you’ve been someplace raw and real. B+