STRANGER BY THE LAKE (2014, Alain Guiraudie)
We’ve seen films about how love can turn into obsession, and how obsession can blind the best of us to the faults of the object. But we haven’t seen too many of them that are quite like this. Guiraudie appears to have made a few features over the last decade but I’d never heard of him before, and he makes his mark pretty distinctly. The boldest decision is to shoot the entire movie in one location — and while that isn’t unique, usually when movies do this it’s the characters stuck there, not the camera. Here, the characters leave every night and come back the next day, but it’s the camera that’s stuck at the lake and just capturing the things that happen there (and in its nearby woods and parking lot) with no access to the home lives of any of these people. (The decision could be driven by budgetary restraints — no need to arrange any other locations — but it also has an interesting thematic appeal; by the same token, every shot is a day exterior requiring what seems like only the sun to light it: even night shots are lit by headlights or the moon, with Guiraudie happy to let anything not illuminated by those sources fall totally dark. If he did pay for a lighting kit and generators, he did a hell of a job making it look natural).*
The film also eschews a score or music of any kind. The last time I went to France, I was struck by how quiet so many places were. You can walk around that country without being assaulted by music everywhere you go — but back in the States, there’s hardly a corner of civilized real estate that isn’t blaring music in some capacity. By extension, French films will often let its scenes breathe without a score, using natural sound and post-production effects (birds, waves, wind) to provide the entirety of the audio track. Again, the lack of music could be driven by budget, but here it also adds to the film’s sense of isolation and anonymity. We don’t learn protagonist Franck’s name until at least halfway through the film (we don’t learn anyone’s name until then, for that matter), and the repeated shots of a red car and an empty towel say everything they need to.
It’s because the film’s spare style works so well to explore its themes of anonymity, loneliness, and repetition that one scene stuck out like a sore thumb — an Inspector late in the movie delivers a monologue to Franck that serves as a lecture, a summary, and a heavy-handed speech to the audience about what Guiraudie has been saying for the last hour and a half. The scene really let me down because I was hoping Guiraudie would have trusted his audience enough to get it on their own — maybe Franck wouldn’t have, and you can defend the scene by saying he needed to hear it, but it rang false to me. I also thought the graphic sex scenes felt so removed from the sparseness of the rest of the movie’s style that they didn’t seem justified by any storytelling motive. In the same way that the scenes in BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (to compare this to another recent French film with incredibly explicit sex scenes) felt a bit like a director getting his jollies (though Kechiche was making a movie about one girl’s ravenous passions, so the graphicness there made a lot more sense than here), these sex scenes don’t add much more beyond the curiosity of a director wanting to get away with cum shots.
Those flaws aside, this is a nicely paced, carefully modulated mounting thriller about how the loss of identity, the search for a connection to other people, and the instability of feeling lonely can lead to sad, sadder, and saddest: you’re either stuck in a rut, you’re suicidal, or you’re so attracted to danger that you’d rather obsess over something that could kill you rather than be alone, in the dark, with nothing to love, and nothing to love you.
* UPDATE (March 4): I’ve just done some research and read a Film Comment interview with Guiraudie where he does indeed reveal that it was all natural light — nothing added, as I suspected (thanks to the RED Epic, a superlative digital camera).