The beach upon which much of Stranger By The Lake takes place looks like it fell straight off of a postcard. The water is as blue as water gets, and the sand constantly bathed in the glow of the French summer sun. Add to that the mazelike groves of backwoods that separate it from the rest of society, and you have a veritable Eden on your hands – it helps that it’s gorgeously shot as well. Its usual tenants – a group of homosexuals far from afraid to show off their manhood – treat it as such, basking naked in the sun before heading into the treeline to satiate their carnal lust, ditching society in the parking lot and taking up the new laws of this lusty utopia.
While the pitch seems to promise “edgy” Euro-arthouse guff, Stranger by the Lake is blessed with a genuinely interesting story and the kind of emotionally resonant characters that so often get papered over in this brand of cinema. There’s an emotionally vulnerable and rather tartish main character (Pierre Deladonchamps), Chrisopher Paou channeling Tom Selleck in the most sinister way possible and – most pitiful of all – Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), a lonely, balding fat bloke seen as an abject outcast by the rest of the beach. The performances are engaging enough to pull you into what is an otherwise a pretty impenetrable French melodrama, and keeps it all grounded as the plot escalates into the realms of campy silliness.
It was this silliness that led me to a somewhat bizarre observation about halfway through Stranger by the Lake: it’s one tonal tweak away from a full on farcical sex comedy. In spite of the film’s exceedingly disappointing refusal to go all-out Ealing, it retains a vein of very dark humour that prevents it from descending into the self absorption so beloved by the countless Godard-ites that plague the Cannes Film Festival every year. While its pace meanders from time to time, it otherwise remains an unexpectedly genuine piece of cinema, with honest, unpretentious writing and a surprisingly efficient runtime of just under 100 minutes. It’s not the sort of film you’d usually seek out for entertainment value, but Stranger by the Lake delivers a surprising amount of bang for your buck.
And there’s plenty of that sort of banging as well, to the point where Cineworld (a pretty major chain here in the UK) went to the lengths of pulling Stranger by the Lake from all its cinemas – only to renege on the decision a day later following a vitriolic social media response. Suffice to say, there are a lot of penises – this is not a film for the prudish, or the conservative, or indeed anyone who would struggle to cope with at least one male member being onscreen for the majority of the film. It may seem excessive at first, but it makes sense in the context of the film’s setting – when on a nudist beach, one does as the nudists do after all. Whilst Blue Is The Warmest Colour‘s well-documented sex scenes felt overlong and shoehorned in for the sake of controversy, Stranger by the Lake‘s in your face homo-eroticism manages to actually make a surprising amount of sense.
Stranger by the Lake is no doubt a difficult sell, and its limited distribution means that most people will have to go out of their way to see it – plus there’s a fair few people out there who would rather not attend an Edenic orgy on a Friday night. And it’s certainly not the most engaging or entertaining film you’re likely to see this year, but by the standards of native Cannes winners, its degree of restraint and unexpected streak of pitch black silliness makes it a strangely enrapturing novelty. It’s a gorgeously shot bottle piece, with an engrossing ambiance that sucks you into a world that will be utterly alien from most of its audience. Though it isn’t likely to sell out multiplexes, Stranger by the Lake almost certainly won’t disappoint arthouse audiences looking for something new amidst the guff.
While its pace meanders, Stranger by the Lake proves to be an engrossing and darkly humorous watch.