For the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival I figured I’d try and keep some kind of a review diary covering each of the 20 or so films I’m planning to see. It’s going to be a busy couple of weeks.
Any movie that has me hugging my knees to my chest as I peek out at the screen from behind my fingers is a success in my book, and that’s precisely what I got with Stranger by the Lake, the most chilling film I’ve seen not only in this year’s NZIFF, but maybe in the last couple of years.
We’re given almost no backstory for leading man Franck (Pierre Deladonshamps), a handsome, twenty-something man who frequents an isolated cruising spot on the shores of a lake, a haven for anonymous homosexual encounters. Franck’s eye is caught by Michel (Christophe Paou), an athletic but apparently attached fellow cruiser whose casual flirty chatter is halted by his his posessive lover. Also on the beach is Henri (Patrick d’Assumcao), and older, less physically attractive loner who seems a little out of place at the lakeside. After witnessing a shocking deed carried out by Michel, Franck entangles himself in a dangerous world of jealousy, passion and murder.
Stranger by the Lake is beautifully crafted by director Alain Guiraudie, who establishes the isolation of the setting and the routine of the lakeside activities through constant repetition of shots and angles. There is some discussion of the world outside the lake but it is never seen, and the supporting characters very rarely seem to change their wardrobe, making it hard to gauge the passage of time. What is happening, and more importantly when things are happening, becomes a little blurry. It’s carefully disorienting and works to the film’s advantage, as later the secluded nature of the lake takes on much more menacing connotations.
There is some very frank and explicit sexual content in Stranger by the Lake which is more confronting than some will be accustomed to, but it adds another layer of vulnerability to the characters, Franck in particular. The men who come to the lake do so to escape prying, judgemental eyes, yet it exposes them to danger from within their ranks. Guiraudie introduces stakes early but leaves them to simmer, only tightening the screws in the final act, and what a tense final act it is.
Stranger by the Lake coils up like a snake ready to strike, and just when you think release is coming it piles on a bit more. Its power comes from a gradual build to a peak that lingers after the credits have rolled, and I was left gasping from this deeply effective, frightening thriller.