The people in Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake are always watching one another, and yet they try not to think much about what they see. Heads turn appraisingly, cautiously, questioningly every time young Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) walks down the sandy path from a parking area and enters the film’s sole location: a beach by a secluded, sparkling lake nestled in the mountains of southwestern France. Frequent point-of-view shots tell us that Franck returns the gaze of his onlookers and scans the beach in his turn, reviewing the men who gather to swim and sunbathe in the nude and then stroll into the pine forest for further recreational activity.
Over the course of the story’s several days—a time frame that Guiraudie meticulously constructs out of repeated, matching views of the parking area, beach and woods, from dappled morning through dusk and beyond—Franck notices two men in particular and acts on what he learns about them, behaving in ways that a more disinterested observer (for example, the moviegoer) might not. Such discrepancies are the stuff of normal life, and of good suspense thrillers.
Out of kindness or curiosity, Franck seeks out conversations with a newcomer to the lake named Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao). A great-bellied man with a face that would look good on a sculptural beer mug, Henri is ten or fifteen years older than the average beach visitor and sits at a remove from everyone. What separates him from the others is neither physical beauty—a voyeur who is only slightly more presentable roams the woods freely, masturbating at the sight of the lovemaking—nor social class (Franck sells vegetables in the market when he’s employed; Henri is a logger). The difference, which astonishes Franck, is that Henri comes from a milieu where men avid for sex with other men always have a wife or steady girlfriend on hand. Henri, who seems to have lost this layer of protection, professes a gruff, nonjudgmental surprise at the undisguised cruising at the lake. For someone who takes care to appear unconcerned about these comings and goings, though, he keeps very good track of them, including those of the newcomer who is most in Franck’s sights.
His name is Michel—a detail that Franck won’t learn until after the first coupling—and, as embodied by Christophe Paou, he is everything that Henri is not: athletic, flirtatious, slightly exotic (his French has a Mediterranean flavor), and as chisel-chinned and thickly mustached as a Tom of Finland illustration. As Franck soon learns, and as we learn through Franck’s eyes, Michel is also extremely dangerous. The moral and emotional engine of Stranger by the Lake is Franck’s decision to keep that secret knowledge to himself.
For Franck, his pairings with Michel are a tangle in which physical excitement cannot be separated from guilt and foreboding. For Guiraudie, a thoroughly unsentimental filmmaker who might be described as part Hitchcock and part Akerman, this tangle is not to be unwound but rather observed, within an immaculately built structure. One element of that framework consists of matter-of-fact, unsimulated sex. (The accusations of phoniness raised against Blue Is the Warmest Color will never be heard about Stranger by the Lake.) Another element is the landscape, gorgeously photographed in widescreen format by Claire Mathon, with the colors and sounds juiced in post-production to hallucinatory levels. There is no background music at all—if memory serves, not even a tune from a car radio. The only emotional prompts Guiraudie needs to give you about his characters’ plunges toward ecstasy, or their gropings through suppressed feelings and knowledge, come from within the scenes, through variations of light: the glory at full noon, the twilight that silhouettes and suggests, the enveloping darkness that a parked car’s isolated light makes that much deeper.
I suppose it would be possible to receive all this as merely a cautionary anecdote—at base, a slice of sociology—about risky behavior in one sector of gay life. Perhaps Guiraudie wouldn’t reject that reading. He obviously cares deeply about grounding his story in the specificity of its region, and he is not above having one of his characters deliver a stinging lecture to another about communal responsibility. That said, he has given Stranger by the Lake a grandeur that goes beyond the anecdotal. You see it both in the expansiveness of the setting and in the faithfulness of a born filmmaker to the materials of cinema. Guiraudie will demonstrate how one man (like many others) can make himself fatally blind, and he will show you how to make a movie.
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In his extraordinary 2011 drama A Separation, Asghar Farhadi pulled off in full measure the great but often elusive trick of realistic fiction: making the private conflicts of his characters devastating in themselves and revelatory of the tensions within their society. In The Past, the first film Farhadi has shot outside Iran, the influences of class, religion and politics have dropped away. He has nothing he wants to tell you about French society—not even how its attitudes and assumptions might affect a citizen of Arab background, or a former resident who has returned from Tehran on family business. The most you can say is that something feels provisional in the lives of all the members of this film’s troubled, extended family—people who have gotten fixed in a terrible situation and yet remain rootless in their place.
The fortunate one is the most transient: Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), who is planning to stay in France only long enough to conclude his divorce from Marie (Bérénice Bejo). She still lives in the house they once occupied together on the outskirts of Paris—a place that sits immediately next to the commuter rail tracks and is undergoing a do-it-yourself renovation that looks as if it might never end. Ahmad does not intend to rest here again, but like everybody in The Past, he gets stuck. Recruited by his own conscience, he tries to apply his calm demeanor and slow, reasonable speech to resolving the bitter struggles surrounding Marie’s intended next marriage, to a dry cleaner named Samir (Tahar Rahim, best known from Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet). Samir’s young son is furious and wants to run away from Marie’s house. Marie’s elder daughter (to whom Ahmad has been a stepfather) is even more furious and wants to run away, too. Samir himself doesn’t know whether to come or go. The only person definitely staying put is Samir’s existing wife—who is hospitalized in a coma from which she is not expected to awake—but the more Ahmad learns about how and why the wife wound up in that condition, the more evident it becomes that everyone is going to remain trapped.
In a season when other movies of family tragedy want to make you feel good, like Philomena, and stories about yearning for escape and redemption are mostly chucklesome and well-meaning, like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Past draws you into something far more compelling. It lacks the scope of A Separation; it’s more forced in its conceit of the outsider uncovering dark truths. But once its momentum sets in, the narrative spiral of The Past pulls you straight down, irresistibly.