In the above still, a sexy gay serial killer steps into the water, into the sunlight, and morphs into a savior of men.
L’inconnu du lac
(Stranger by the Lake)
Directed by Alain Guiraudie
1h 40min, France, 2013
In every post full of plaudits and in every interview with gay director Alain Guiraudie, the director and the critic avoid talking about, even mentioning, one important thing every fucking time — that this is a movie about a gay serial killer and how the gay men who visit a beachside cruising area either collude to protect him (’cause he’s so hot, I guess) or else rush into his arms to extinguish themselves. No one seems scrupulous enough to ask why, or why the scenario is so easy to accept.
In this interview in Film Comment, for instance, the writer is unable to focus on the fact that murder is at the center of the film. Instead, we get this little evasion: the film “look[s] at love and desire in the shadow of murder.”
Whatever that means.
It’s more accurate to describe it the other way around. But it’s still remarkable that not once in a long post is the word murder mentioned again. The words murderer, kill or killer aren’t mentioned either. Now why the fuck is that? Imagine discussing Cruising without mentioning Al Pacino’s character’s investigating the serial murders of gay men in New York City. Instead, we’re informed that Stranger By the Lake is “gorgeously shot,” which allows you to get away with… anything apparently; that director Guiraudie wanted to write about something that he knew a lot about — homosexuality, not sex in public places, and not murder — that the setting is a “metaphor” — no mention of murder being a metaphor that demands justification — and a lot of talk about style, including the “imagery of the body.” Not a body at risk, or a body sacrificed to a killer of gay men. Just: the imagery of the body. So the critic is either being lazy or disingenuous or stupid.
When asked what brought him to the story — not a story about murder and a murderer — Guiraudie says he wanted to write about desire, and aspires to be more like Marcel Proust. If you’re not rolling your eyes at that, I don’t know what to tell you.
The closest he gets to describing his film accurately is by depicting it as a mixture of fantasy and the real, as if every movie were not. But he never specifies which aspect is real and which aspect is fantasy. Is the sex real and the murder a fantasy? Or is it the other way around? And whose fantasy is it anyway? The level of avoidance from both interviewer and interviewee stuns me.
Every article or review I’ve read has been evasive. Murder is a color, like violence in a Tarantino movie, so ubiquitous and so obvious in its meaning and so necessary that its presence goes without comment. No one would be taking seriously this movie about male-male public-sex rituals without it. I mean, who cares about plain ol’ desire when it’s a bunch of faggots in the forest who have sex with strangers? Nothing to be “gorgeously shot” in that is there?
Slant’s interviewer comes right out and asks Guiraudie if the film is an allegory — because interpretation — for HIV/AIDS. Well, no: but he says it’s tempting to think of it that way, which is a revealing formulation. Guiraudie dismisses the idea but then backtracks, perhaps because he realizes how vapid he sounds if he doesn’t address it.
The fear of AIDS didn’t really play a role for me in the film, but on the other hand, it’s very important, because AIDS has to be present. It has to be something that hovers over the whole film. Because it was something that, at the time, had profoundly affected our love relationships, and our sexual relationships. So while there wasn’t the fear of it, it was something that was always present for me in the film. And it’s not just homosexual relationships, it’s also heterosexual relationships—both were really changed as a result of AIDS.
I call bullshit on this whole passage. He denies then confirms. Which is it? I think it’s more than clear that it’s not a topic that interests him, not in this film at least. Perhaps what he’s afraid of saying is that he has a problem with gay men who have a lot of anonymous sex.
For me, the film’s conflation of casual public sex with death and murder is far more basic and retro than the AIDS crisis. As Guiraudie has pointed out in all his interviews, he has a fascination with the 70s — pre-HIV — and it’s hard not to read the casting — the murderer looks like he stepped out of LA Tool & Die — as well as the avoidance of showing other contemporary historical cues as a way to evoke a period and its wanton, condomless sexuality while still plausibly making it feel like it takes place in the present. This ambiguity helps the film avoid meeting the moral responsibilities and demands of either period, something that you could not say about Cruising. Sometimes ambiguity deepens and expands our possible responses to art; sometimes it does something else.
In an interview I can’t find right now, Guiraudie states that the dichotomy between the fantasy elements and the realist elements in the film are what creates tension. If that’s true, then all the pretty cinematography, all the stylistic and formal tactics in play, work to obliterate those boundaries. Surely, that is the film’s primary project. And not one of Guiraudie’s critics or interviewers has the sense to ask why.
But I don’t agree there’s a dichotomy. There is no dividing line. There is a seamless fusion between the two modes and we are never called upon to question that, not by the film anyway. We would have to bring to bear our own morality, which is why I haven’t been this disgusted with a film or with the slavish responses to it in quite a long time.
The film cannot be excused because of its well-observed moments. For me it makes the punishment dished out upon this group of men who gather in the sunlight to have sex and the motives ascribed to them all the more insidious and ungenerous, despite what director João Pedro Rodrigues has said. It makes me wonder if Guiraudie has had some bad experiences or rejections himself in a real place like that and Stranger By the Lake is his revenge. This is a revenge movie, at any rate. I’m just not sure for what.
My own experiences of those places in the United States and elsewhere were yes, the liberating nature of anonymity, which is never wholly anonymous but rather, fleeting — the temporary formations of contingent identifies, but also a concomitant sense of camaraderie.
So when Guiraudie allows the investigating police detective to become the moral center of the film — he’s the only one rational enough to ask the obvious question of how they can all go back to having sex the day after one of their own was murdered (he doesn’t know that it’s much worse than that) — we get that much closer to figuring out what Guiraudie is getting at. These gay men not only don’t care much about their own safety, they don’t care much for anyone else’s either, so why should we?
Also, in my experience, the cops were never all that friendly with gay men in the bushes and if a murder had in fact taken place in one of them, it’s unlikely that anyone would be roaming around the next day doing what they were used to doing. Besides the presence of the yellow crime-scene tape, the news would have spread fast, as it did when someone was known to be a thief or a basher.
So although I accept that this is fantasy, I still would like to ask Guiraudie whose fantasy it is and what goal does it further? Maybe it’s easier to ask: If no one were having sex out there by the lake, would there have been any reason for murders at all? We must know there would be no reason for this movie.
At least in this article in Art Forum, critic Steffie Christiaens calls murder, murder. But she never explains why the rather banal and sophomoric idea that “danger acts as an aphrodisiac — “death as the ultimate culmination [sic] of love” — why that idea should automatically be considered important or even particularly interesting.
She posits that maybe the film is “an allegory of concatenating death wishes or a castigatory tale about the mortal heedlessness of desire.” By those ugly phrases I think she means desire is reckless, sometimes death-defying and that the film is chastising its characters, and maybe us, for riding the wall of death one more time.
But I have to protest: The only reason that this film’s characters risk death is because the director has put a serial killer in the middle of it and then made all its gay characters attracted to him. So there’s nothing arbitrary about it. It takes an ideological leap to make this connection between gay sex and death seem automatic and obvious. I thought we were beyond that.
So if I’m reading this film as Christiaens does, and I more or less agree with her, then either gay sex is bad and must be punished or anonymous gay sex in the woods is bad and must be punished. In that case, Stranger by the Lake seems like an old-fashioned, reactionary, sex-negative, noirish tale to me.
Further, if we are to take seriously all the critics lauding and talking about the film solely and unambiguously as an art film, then we must also take seriously the fact that they all consider its obvious sex-negativity not important enough to mention.
But for me the film is as if William Friedkin walked up behind James Broughton while he was happily fucking his lover in the woods and then slit his throat.
Then all the art-fags stood ’round and applauded. Sorry, but as someone who still loves sex — by a lake, in a car, on the make, in a bar — I can’t.