Stranger by the Lake is “a fascinating feature guaranteed to polarize opinion.”
is “a fascinating feature guaranteed to polarize opinion.”

In his now legendary concurring opinion in the case Jacobellis v. Ohio, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously noted that, despite the difficulty of defining the pornographic, “I know it when I see it.” I used to think that was a pretty fair definition, too, but after screening the NC-17 rated L’inconnu du lac (Stranger by the Lake, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Feb. 7), I’m not so sure anymore.

Written and directed by Alain Guiraudie, Stranger by the Lake is both incredibly intense (in terms of on-screen sex) and incredibly languorous (in terms of Guiraudie’s approach to storytelling). It’s a fascinating feature guaranteed to polarize opinion, a cinematic poster child for the cliché “you’ll either love it or hate it,” and a film all but certain to generate a few walkouts by low-information moviegoers.

Handsome young Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is spending his summer vacation relaxing in the company of other men on a postcard-perfect lakefront beach somewhere in France. It’s a lovely spot ringed by woods that, in turn, provide secluded trysting grounds for those so inclined. For anyone uninterested in spur of the moment hanky-panky – including bisexual logger Henri (Patrick D’Assumçao) – the lake is simply a nice place to soak up the rays while musing on the dangers posed by its fishy inhabitants, the legendary silurus.

A casual hook-up, however, is most definitely something Franck is hoping for – and he finds one in the form of a bald man in a Batman tee-shirt. Their early evening snog ends in somewhat unsatisfying fashion, Batman departs with the setting sun, and Franck, glancing towards the lake, witnesses something rather disturbing: a murder by drowning committed by Tom Selleck lookalike Michel (Christophe Paou). Presumably hypnotized by Michel’s impressively proportioned soup strainer, Franck finds himself pulled into a torrid affair with the remorseless killer – an affair that continues even after the victim washes ashore and nosy police inspector Damroder (Jérôme Chappatte) shows up and starts asking difficult questions.

Viewers will wonder why Franck is willing to be intimate with a man he knows is quite capable of killing him, but Stranger by the Lake is most reluctant to provide an explanation. Presumably the attraction is entirely physical, as the couple’s intense, nothing left to the imagination fling (director Guiraudie initially planned to cast porn actors in his lead roles, but decided their acting wasn’t up to snuff) stands in sharp contrast to their unwillingness to so much as eat dinner together.

Despite so little happening in the course of its 100-minute running-time — and the complete absence of music (even of the diagetic variety) – Stranger by the Lake is never boring. At heart a thought-provoking meditation upon love and lust with a hint of Antonioni’s Blow-Up, it will certainly be considered a dirty movie by some. Open-minded Berkeleyside readers, however, are surely mature enough to appreciate the film – dread NC-17 rating and all.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. 

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...