Discover This: Stranger by the Lake

Copyright: Alamode Film

I don’t remember the first time I went cruising but I still remember that my heart raced so fast I almost collapsed with excitement. Now that the summer is coming to an end and the leaves will soon be falling off the trees in the parks, the small refuges of anonymous gay sex will make way for a cold and unfriendly winter and cruisers will have to abandon the public spheres and escape to the private cellars and darkrooms of the bars and clubs again.

Cruising is a phenomenon that is pretty unique to gay urban subcultures. It is hard to explain and maybe it really shouldn’t be, but since a film is hitting Berlin cinemas today that is depicting cruising in a way it hasn’t before, it might be useful to say a thing or two about it. Cruising is about queering a public space more than anything else. What I mean by this is that certain areas in parks, cities, or in nature are unofficially and somewhat inexplicably turned into microcosms of gay male desire. In Stranger at the Lake, it’s a lake somewhere in France, which becomes the focus point of all goings-on. We never leave this scenery and there seems to be no other world outside. Every day, the cars park at the same spots, framed in the exact same way by camerawoman Claire Mathon and mostly the same men lie in the sun at the pebble beach naked. At one point, there is a man in the woods asking with surprise where the women are, but in this space, at this lake, he won’t find any, because gay men have peacefully and silently taken over.

Copyright: Alamode Film
Copyright: Alamode Film

Berlin was once full of inner-city cruising areas, and in the 1980s, the public toilets in Schöneberg and even in the very middle of Hermannplatz (so I was told) were meeting points for gay men who were looking for sex and finding it. There is even a special name for it (“Klappen”) and nowadays it seems hard to imagine that before AIDS and the internet – two modern day phenomena that have devastated the dynamics and structures of gay male culture in very different ways – public toilets were a place for cruising as well.
What director Alain Guiraudie presents in his film is one of the most precise depictions and articulations of cruising and gay male culture I have ever seen. The set-up is simple and the story is an almost documentary account of a leisure time routine. Every little detail has its place in this. Stranger by the Lake begins by painting a sort of idyllic picture of a remote natural resort where gay men are swimming and sleeping and tanning and sitting by the water and then going into the bushes to cruise and have sex with each other.

Copyright: Alamode Film
Copyright: Alamode Film

Franck is a very handsome regular at this scene and comes to the lake every day. One day, he encounters a hot young couple and watches them go for a swim, but only one of them returns. The stranger by the lake, gorgeous Michel (who looks like an 1980s BUTT magazine model) returns the next day without his boyfriend and pretends nothing has happened. Franck gets to know him and starts cruising him but he can’t forget about Michel’s boyfriend and wonders if what he has witnessed was a murder or just a figment of his imagination.

Copyright: Alamode Film
Copyright: Alamode Film

Stranger by the Lake works as an authentic and insightful account of the world of cruising areas and its inhabitants. The characters in it are archetypal, but not stereotypical; there is the older, slightly fatter man who just sits there and watches, there is the hot new arrival at the scene, then the cruiser who doesn’t want to use a condom, the lonely man who wants to watch others fuck and is finally sent away.

At the same time, Stranger by the Lake is a beautifully dreamy fantasy that gradually turns into a nightmarish psycho-thriller. Because of the sleepily slow pace of the storytelling and the repetitive nature of the self-contained daily routines, you can never really be sure that what you see is to be taken as reality. Despite the impressionistic long shots and the very realistic and explicit sex scenes, there is a veil of mystery hanging over the narrative. Since we never learn about any character’s background story and are never allowed to leave the lake as an audience, this utopian cruising space with its sun-soaked beaches, heightened rushing of the wind soundscape and picture-perfect sunsets becomes a more and more surreal place.

Copyright: Alamode Film
Copyright: Alamode Film

The last time I went cruising and wandered through the weirdly enchanted forest area in Hasenheide, I had the same feeling that Stranger by the Lake gave me; when beams of light pierced through the leaves and once in a while a stranger passed looking at me or following another stranger that had disappeared into the bushes, I thought that all this can’t be real because it is happening outside of any common social order and yet everyone seems to understand what to do, how to look or when to get their cocks out. There’s a sense of danger in the air since you have to trust every stranger anew before getting intimate with him. And yet, the next stranger might be the man of your dreams. Or he might turn into your biggest nightmare. Like the first time I went cruising, watching Stranger by the Lake got me excited, a little aroused and made my heart beat to a point where I thought I might faint.

Watch the trailer: Here.

L’inconnu du lac, France, 2013, 97 min.

director: Alain Guiraudi, cinematography: Claire Mathon, actors: Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou, Patrick d’Assumçao, languages: Frensch, distribution: Alamode

Berlin screenings:

French with German subtitles: Cinema Paris, Odeon, Neues Off, International

Dubbed in German: Yorck, Filmtheater am Friedrichshain, Kant Kino

Discover This! is a weekly Berlin–based film comment.

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