Alain Guiraudie’s STRANGER BY THE LAKE
‘Perhaps the film reflects some nostalgia on my part for the idea that sexual liberation not only made us free but made us stand out.’
Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake takes a pessimistic view of the fallout from the sexual revolution. Set at a gay cruising ground near a lake, it depicts a small group of regulars who compulsively pursue anonymous sex. [Spoiler alert.] One of them, Frank (Pierre de Ladonchamps), witnesses Michel (Christophe Paou) murder a man. Instead of turning Michel in, Frank has sex with him, as his act of violence just makes him seem even hotter. Stranger By the Lake aims to create the kind of connections between sex and death made by films like In the Realm of the Senses and David Cronenberg’s Crash, but it also comes close to LGBT controversy magnets like Cruising and Basic Instinct. It’s received nearly unanimous acclaim from critics (though a few narrow-minds in the non-LGBTQ sector have been turned off by the amount of gay sex, some of it highly explicit and unsimulated, it contains). As brilliant as Guiraudie’s filmmaking is— the final ten minutes are a masterful exercise in suspense—the film’s flirtations with the stereotype of promiscuous and amoral gay men are troubling. Still, Guiraudie’s devotion to explorations of the politically incorrect angles of gay sexuality are valuable.
[Editor's note: A retrospective, "Alain Guiraudie: King of Escape," is being presented by Film Society of Lincoln Center in tandem with the January 24 premiere of Stranger by the Lake, which is being distributed in the U.S. by Strand Releasing.]
Keyframe: Do you see the film as a critique of gay culture, or just a small, insular group of people?
Guiraudie: Actually, it’s not a critique of the entire gay culture, because the world of this film is very specific. There’s a huge difference between what happens in Greenwich Village and what happens by a lake in France. I’m really focusing on a very small microcosm. I wanted to show it in a documentary style, but I wanted to deal with certain attitudes that have developed. You might call it ‘consumer sex,’ where it’s just a demand for more and more sex and that’s what becomes most important to people.
Keyframe: Did you deliberately cast the actor who plays Michel because he has a seventies ‘clone’ look?
Guiraudie: I think that when I chose the actor to play Michel, I liked him because he can be very charismatic but also very disturbing and very mysterious. I wanted those qualities. It’s true that when I saw a picture of him with a mustache, I thought that he looked very modern and at the same time he had a seventies retro look of Mark Spitz or Tom Selleck.
Keyframe: Was it hard to find actors who were willing to literally expose so much of themselves?
Guiraudie: It’s true that there a lot of actors who aren’t willing to be nude in films, especially for long periods of time, or appear in love scenes with men. So those actors were immediately out of the question. They were not interested in the first place. With Pierre and Christophe, they were comfortable with me and I was comfortable with them.
Keyframe: How was your experience at Cannes? Observing the festival, it seemed like the film constantly got compared to Blue Is the Warmest Color as a more authentic representation of gay life and people also speculated that homophobia kept it out of competition.
Guiraudie: There were a lot of comparisons with Blue Is the Warmest Color. It’s much easier in a film to show love scenes between women than men. What was appealing to me was that I wasn’t really upset that I wasn’t included in the competition. I don’t think it really has to do with homophobia. For whatever reason, I’m glad. I think it’s a fragile kind of film, and the fact that it wasn’t included in the competition meant I was able to dodge the danger of overexposure and becoming the subject of polemical discussions that would hide what the film is really about.
Keyframe: Was it always part of your concept that the film would include unsimulated sex?
Guiraudie: When I wrote the script, I had a rough idea of how I wanted the sex scenes to be filmed. As I started filming it, it became very clear to me what I wanted to do. Because in a film like this, you can film it in a way that you’re highlighting the pornographic aspects: performance, the mechanical aspects of sex. That was not how I wanted to shoot sex. I wanted to remove the act of physical sex from the realm of pornography and move it into the realm of poetry. But it was still important to show actual sex.
Keyframe: There’s one conversation in the film about HIV, and in some respects the illness hovers over the whole film. Michel can even be seen as a metaphor for the disease. How do you see it functioning in the film?
Guiraudie: I don’t really consider the character of Michel to be a metaphor for AIDS, but it’s true that AIDS is present in the film. AIDS is not really present in the cinema, but it’s certainly brought the whole issue of sex and death much closer together. In films, people rarely talk about it, but it’s really changed not just homosexual relationships but relationships in general. For me, in this film, including it is almost a political issue. It’s not treated in films anymore, and I thought it was important to do so.
Keyframe: The character of Henri rightly points out that gay men are often not accepting of overweight men. However, is there something masochistic about his sitting alone naked by the lake all day, day after day?
Guiraudie: For me, the character of Henri remains an enigma. He’s difficult to define. To my way of thinking, he’s not a homosexual. Perhaps there is a degree of masochism, but he remains distant. He’s looking for a desire, but it’s diffuse and vague. He experiences desire, but it won’t necessarily end in sex. His relationship with Frank is a counterpoint to the one Frank has with Michel.
Keyframe: Do you see yourself as part of a tradition of transgressive French artists like Georges Bataille, Jean Genet and Alain Robbe-Grillet?
Guiraudie: Just recently, I read Genet’s Querelle. A friend of mine said ‘I think your film really has a lot in common with it.’ I think there are some similarities between my film and Bataille. I really want to explore what desire is, as well as the relationship between eroticism and death. Bataillle said for him, accepting eroticism was a way that in the end, accepting death became acceptable for people.
Keyframe: I was curious if the French right-wing press has responded to the film. How have you thought about homophobes might react to it?
Guiraudie: I’m not quite sure how it works in the U.S., but as far as press reactions, my film goes beyond homosexuality. In answer to your specific question, I was faced with this question in Italy. Some people thought the way in which I have shown homosexuality was offensive in that homophobes would point to it and say ‘that’s what gays are like.’ Homophobes generally don’t go and see this kind of film, but I have heard from a number of homosexuals who’ve said this film will play into their stereotypes.
Keyframe: It seems to me that the kind of public cruising you depict is dying down and many younger gay men are interested in raising families and getting married. Did you ever think of making Stranger By the Lake a period piece?
Guiraudie: This is a very American question. Here in the U.S., everyone thinks that whole world [of public cruising] is dead. I think that for us in France, this kind of cruising still exists. We’re not yet at the stage where this kind of hyper-sexuality belongs to the past. Certain things, like the Internet, have changed it, but my film is a combination of the seventies and the present. The seventies brings us a sunny quality, the present day offers a nightmare. The film reflects how the sexual liberation experience of the seventies has changed to become something more consumerist. Perhaps the film reflects some nostalgia on my part for the idea that sexual liberation not only made us free but made us stand out instead of becoming standardized individuals.