It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"Stranger by the Lake" is the sexiest and most elegant thriller in years, and it's a damn shame it stands so little chance of traveling beyond the niche of a "gay film" it will probably get squeezed into. This French movie, written and directed by Alain Guiraudie, is set in a single location and has a dreamy quality to it: a mixture of allure and menace that's quite intoxicating. We never leave a sunny gay cruising area the characters are frequenting—a lake, a beach, a nearby boudoir of bushes—but our imagination is kept alert at all times: every image and every cut is underlined with tension.
The main character is Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), an attractive guy in his thirties regularly enjoying everything the cruising spot has to offer: from a chat to a swim to a tryst. We meet him on the day he strikes up a conversation with Henri (Patrick D'Assumçao), the flabby and gruff lumberjack who may alienate himself from the beach community, but seems open enough to Franck. And while the latter enjoys Henri's company, he falls in love with Michel (Christophe Paou), a sexy and mysterious Tom Selleck lookalike the entire beach is smitten with (he's like a mid-1980s gay centerfold incarnate).
Michel is initially aloof and goes to the bushes with someone else, but the next day he hits on Franck and they have sex. Their chemistry is immediate and palpable, even if Michel doesn't want to hear of committment (which Franck is keen on having). The way the story is set up, it's the unpopular Henri who represents fidelity and emotional attachment, while Michel is pure sex—with a dash of death. [SPOILER IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPH]
The evening after their first adventure, Franck witnesses Michel drown another lover picked up on the beach in an extraordinary long shot that's the film's centerpiece. Instead of calling the police, he is drawn more and more towards Michel, even as local police starts an investigation. The unsmiling inspector assigned to the case (Jérôme Chappatte) is faced with a daunting task. He starts gathering information in a place designed for people to lose their official identities and plunge into unbridled desire. A cat-and-mouse game ensues, with Franck becoming literal prey in the final scenes, shot in the dark and more primal in their feel than any of the sexual encounters depicted thus far.