Christophe Paou, left, and Pierre Deladonchamps in Stranger by the Lake (Strand Releasing)

Christophe Paou, left, and Pierre Deladonchamps in Stranger by the Lake (Strand Releasing)

Directed by Alain Guiraudie
Produced by Sylvie Pialat
Released by Strand Releasing
French with English subtitles
France. 97 min. Not rated
With Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou & Patrick D’Assumçao

Tense, erotic, and coolly transfixing, Stranger by the Lake captivates through its slow-burning intensity and its brazen exhibition of sexuality. Its components are a bit unconventional, if not outwardly defiant, and for some, the flagrant sexual encounters may spur discomfort. But the characters’ carnal desires are essential to the film’s escalation, and as a whole, the pieces culminate in a potent, electrifying climax (pun intended).

Directed by Alain Guiraudie, the French thriller initially establishes a tranquil atmosphere of leisure and self-indulgence. Gentle breezes, golden beaches, and a glistening, translucent lake characterize the serene environment. But despite the unperturbed, gloriously photographed setting, one cannot help but detect an abiding level of disquietude with each fleeting moment.

Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a svelte, handsome, but largely diffident gay bachelor, arrives unaccompanied to a beach, where a spectrum of unclothed men, all of varying ages and sizes, lay out. The shoreline is spotted with full-frontal genitalia, an effective way to desensitize the audience. By the time Franck has resurfaced after plunging into the placid water, the shock of abundant male nudity is behind us, and the story takes center stage.

While onshore, Franck glimpses Michel (Christophe Paou), who emerges from the lake and jaunts into the woods. Franck is immediately spellbound and, without hesitation, follows him into the maze of trees.

Paou, sporting a ’70s pornstache and a glistening olive complexion, initially plays the part of Michel as an aloof, vain effigy. As the film unravels, though, an underlying dimension of manipulative mania slithers its way to the surface. His psychopathic tendencies are placed on full display when Franck witnesses Michel murder a lover by drowning him in the lake. Equally aroused as he is horrified, Franck brushes aside the killing and continues to pursue, and soon procures, a sexual relationship with the alluring psychopath.

Guiraudie proficiently blends the setting’s serenity with the havoc of the savage circumstances by creating a biting undertone of apprehension and revulsion. The director establishes a free-falling sense of lust over logic as Franck seeks to prolong the dalliance with Michel, even as an investigator begins snooping around, raising suspicions about the men’s possible involvement in the murder. How much is Franck willing to overlook before he is undone by desire, or, even worse, before his dangerously sexy maniac of a lover seeks out his next victim? And will the victim be one of seduction or slaughter?

A chillingly stimulating endeavor in queer cinema, Stranger by the Lake boldly invites viewers to revel in its sexual splendor while veering down a path of unflinching trepidation. As the film builds to its heightened conclusion, the director preps us for a climax of dubious dismay. In a wayward form of cinematic blue balls, Stranger leaves viewers feeling confused, frightened, and yearning for more, more, more!