NYFF: Stranger by the Lake (★★★)

linconnu_du_lacBefore Blue is the Warmest Color soaked up all the attention at the Cannes Film Festival, a movie called Stranger by the Lake had caught the of those in attendance. Here at the New York Film Festival, we’re still a week or two away from seeing that other film, so the focus is solely on Stranger by the Lake. This is a very solid film that depicts far more than just some graphic sex acts (though that’s certainly there too). It’s a drama that is on sturdier ground when it’s also a character study as opposed to when it decides to be a bit of a thriller as well. It’s hardly the first love story of sorts to potentially involve murder, but its uniqueness is lost when that becomes the focus of the plot. I was more interested in seeing the interactions our protagonist has at a cruising spot in comparison to what happens when a mystery sprouts up. This isn’t a huge issue, but it is what keeps me from really embracing writer/director Alain Guiraudie‘s new film…along with the slow pacing, but more on that later. It is however one of the better things I’ve seen at the New York Film Festival so far, so there’s that.

The film takes place exclusively at a cruising spot for men next to a lake in France. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) has become a regular, though he’s still a bit on the awkward side. He really has his eye on Michel (Christophe Paou), but he seems involved exclusively with someone else. One day, Franck sits down next to a lonely older gentleman named Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao) and strikes up a conversation. They aren’t attracted to each other sexually, but they do enjoy each other’s company. Franck slowly has better luck with other men by lake, eventually also having an encounter with Michel. Franck feels he is falling for Michel, even when he discovers something about him that should be a real deal breaker. Through it all he continues to spend time with Henri, who seems concerned for Franck’s safety. I won’t say why that is, but it’s what changes the course of the film and weakens it for me. I had no problems with the graphic sex on display (and boy is it graphic…some of the folks at the festival screening had a bit of trouble dealing with it), but the change in focus did throw me off.

stranger-by-the-lakeI enjoyed the performances from the three main characters. Pierre Deladonchamps is who we spend the most time with and he gives the best performance in the film. He’s a sweet guy, perhaps a bit naive, but definitely a romantic at heart. Deladonchamps shows us all this in a nice and simple way. Patrick d’Assumçao is the most sympathetic character and it’s due to the work from d’Assumcao. He tells you a lot about the man without overtly saying it. As for Christophe Paou, his character is a bit more generic but the performance is still very solid. Paou has to appear differently in different scenes and he aces that. They’re really the only ones of note in the cast, though Jérôme Chappatte plays a police inspector who arrives during the second half. The chemistry between Deladonchamps and d’Assumcao worked better for me than with Paou, but there’s certainly chemistry all around.

Filmmaker Alain Guiraudie isn’t afraid to show some tremendously explicit sexual acts, but he’s more concerned with love than sex. If I had a complaint about Guiraudie, it’s that his writing doesn’t match his directing the whole way through. When the aforementioned change in direction comes, we get what’s essentially an artfully shot Hollywood mystery. I was hoping for a bit more than that. He also slows the pace down to a crawl here and there, though it fits the mood of the flick for the most part.

All in all, Stranger by the Lake is easy to recommend to a certain type of art house audience. Here at the New York Film Festival it was an interesting change of pace and as I said earlier…it’s one of the better NYFF movies so far. I’m not sure that will remain the whole way through, but until that changes it’s tops in my book.

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!