Monday, November 11, 2013

AFI Fest 2013: "Stranger by the Lake"

Director: Alain Guiraudie
Runtime: 92 minutes

An excellent concept is betrayed by thin writing and misjudged direction in Stranger by the Lake. Following in the footsteps of Blue is the Warmest Color, Alain Guiraudie's sun-soaked psychological thriller is even more explicit in its depiction of gay sex (this time between men), eventually to the point of indulgence. Despite a few good jolts near the end, and all of the passionate coupling, Stranger is curiously bloodless as both a drama and a slow-burning psychological thriller. 

Set entirely at a lakeside cruising spot, the film opens with Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) arriving at the start of his summer. Though he's attracted to the fit, tan, and mustachioed Michel (Christophe Paou), he's unable to woo him away from his current lover. Bored, Franck befriends the quiet, closeted Henri (Patrick d'Assumcao), and the two form a platonic relationship as Franck continues to lust after Michel from afar. 

Now add water, rinse, and repeat. Aside from one significant development, which I won't reveal, the majority of the film consists of shots of male bodies, frequently nude, either sunbathing or locked in passionate embrace. Guiraudie even mines some of it for humor, which is the film's lone saving grace. 

Otherwise, the director's languid pacing proves to be detrimental. Once the fascinating psychological dilemma is laid out, Stranger by the Lake refuses to shift in any way. Within the conceit is the potential for an unsettling exploration of desire and our ability to rationalize anything to get (and keep) what we want. Rather than slowly ratcheting up the tension, Guiraudie's direction renders the narrative totally stillborn. The film runs just over 90 minutes, let it feels so much longer, and in the worst possible way. 

Beyond the direction and the pacing, the characters aren't up to snuff either. The actors all seem perfectly capable, yet they are poorly served by the screenplay, which is as lazy with characterization as the directing is with atmosphere. Guiraudie wants to use sex to define these characters, and that's where Franck and Michel's interactions go wrong. The initial sex scenes, as graphic as they are, are acceptable in their uncensored depiction of rampant lust. Yet the longer the film goes on, and the less Franck and Michel's relationship actually progresses, the continued inclusion of the sex scenes becomes gratuitous. The duo's sex life develops gradually, while the psychological developments come in contrived fits and starts. 

Admittedly, the abrupt finale marginally raises the pulse, but it's barely enough to undo the numbing sensation of all that came before. Concluding with a ludicrously drawn-out final shot, Stranger by the Lake frustrates and annoys, even when it momentarily engages. Ideas and ambition are important, but they're difficult to appreciate when coupled with misguided and lackluster execution. Though it ends in a flurry of motion, the majority of Stranger by the Lake is as listless and sun-dappled as the naked denizens of its titular setting.

Grade: D+

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