Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Homme Fatale

The Stranger by the Lake

I spent some time over the winter watching Mark Cousins's mini-series, The Story of Film. While there's a great deal in that series to admire, there's also something about it that really rubbed me the wrong way: Cousins' privileges "classical" film, which is almost purely formalistic, over "romantic" film, which is more often conceived as entertainment. Cousins calls "romantic" filmmaking a "bauble," which seriously slants everything he presents. There's an unexamined assumption in this dichotomy that "classical" filmmaking is more "realistic" and truthful than "romantic" filmmaking, that the urge to entertain is somehow antithetical to truth, which is the core of art. This explains a lot about the landscape of film these days. "Classical" and "romantic" have become almost politicized. I was thinking about all of this as I walked to my car after seeing The Stranger by The Lake (2013, directed by Alain Guiraudie), which is a film that occupies the formalist "classical" camp. It's one of those European films that eschews quick cuts and a musical score and focuses on transgressive behavior. The only problem I have with it is that I didn't believe the film's central narrative. It's all well and good to confine your action to a single location, to keep non-diegetic music off the soundtrack, to look at the stickier facts of the physicality of human beings, but all of that is for naught if you fail to provide human beings that seem credible. This is the fallacy of pure formalism. The form doesn't always trump the content. "Realism" doesn't always mean real.

Note: spoilers abound here.

The story in this film follows Franck, a man who frequents a beach where gay men cruise for hook-ups. While there, he strikes up a friendship with Henri. Henri is in mourning and he's apparently not interested in picking up men. He's content to watch, perhaps because he's closeted or perhaps because he's not gay. Franck isn't interested in him except as a conversational companion between hook-ups. The object of Franck's obsession is Michel, who looks like a young Franco Nero, mustache and all. Michel is unobtainable, though, because he already has a clingy boyfriend. Or so it seems. One evening, as things are winding down on the beach, Franck witnesses Michel having an argument with his boyfriend, one that turns violent. Michel drowns him. Rather than turn Franck off, it instead intensifies his desire. Rather than go to the police, he strikes up a relationship with Michel. That relationship is troubled both by the knowledge of what Michel has done and by the arrival on the beach of Inspector Damroder, who approaches the whole thing with a clear eye. He's suspicious of Franck. He's even more suspicious of Michel. Moreover, Henri begins to put things together, too, much to his sorrow.

As a film construction, The Stranger by the Lake has a lot in common with Claude Chabrol's Hitchcock pastiches (and not just because it's French). It's obsessed with shared guilt. It's equally obsessed with sex and voyeurism. The film goes out of its way to provide an overt voyeur in the man who gets his rocks off by watching other couples copulate, but other characters fill the role, too. Certainly Franck is a voyeur as he watches Michel kill his boyfriend. An audience trained by thrillers will intuit that Franck is horrified as he watches. Given the way the rest of the film unfolds, it's clear that he's aroused by it. It's an opportunity. Perhaps he fantasized about it. The film makes voyeurs of the audience in a way that goes well beyond the usual kind of filmmaker/audience connection, too, given that the sexual content of the film is explicit and un-faked and (for many straight audience members) transgressive. It's rare to see the culture of public sex in a film outside the ghetto of gay and lesbian cinema, though I suppose its possible that this film doesn't actually exist outside of that ghetto. Be that as it may.

The Stranger by the Lake

The two main relationships in the film are symbolic. Henri represents friendship and connection. Michel represents fucking. The way they're coded is almost funny: Henri is overweight, withdrawn, nobody's idea of an ideal partner, least of all the shallow denizens of this particular beach. Michel is like a sex god come to life, stepping from the frame of some continental sex film in the 1980s, hard of body and steely of eye. At the end, it's lust that kills friendship, and Franck doesn't know how to deal with that.

This is a film that explicitly mates Eros with Thanatos. Sex is death in this film and that bothers me a bit. I mean, sure, I get it. That's a cultural leftover of the last three decades of gay history. I think it's a mistake to blame sex itself for that, though. There's a hint of self-loathing and internalized homophobia lurking in the images in this film, if you want to dig for them. It certainly indulges in the stereotype of the gay psycho, to say nothing of the Leopold and Loeb pairing of queer killers (pace Hitchcock, natch), and while I don't necessarily object to queer villains, I think this film is unconsciously demonizing its characters for wanting a zipless fuck. There's a punishment narrative in this film. Punishment narratives are reactionary by their very natures.

The universe of this film is a tightly controlled microcosm. We never venture out of the film's cruising grounds, whether the beach or the woods where couples go to to couple. The access road where the film's denizens park their cars acts as a kind of barrier between the world of the beach and the broader world where different rules apply. The presence or absence of specific cars owned by specific characters become ominous signifiers as time passes. Indeed, the parking area is how the film marks its time. As I've said, there is no music; there are only natural sounds on the soundtrack. This film deliberately avoids anything that might be considered style: it's a long-take, natural light sort of film that doesn't feel the need to intensify anything it shows with formal elements. It makes for a cold, distant, intellectual film that isn't really humanized by the people in the film frame.

The Stranger by the Lake

My main problem with the film is that I don't believe the central conceit of the plot. Franck isn't presented as a sociopath in the early going, and his easy friendship with Henri suggests that he's affable and normal, so when the film asks me to believe that he would remain attracted to Michel even after seeing him commit murder, I disconnect from what the film is trying to do. My disbelief comes crashing down. Then, at the end, the film doubles down on this. Henri, murdered by Michel, dies in Franck's arms, shocking Franck into realizing the violence of which Michel is capable. Michel murders Inspector Damroder, too, as an exclamation point. Franck flees into the woods, but in the end, his lust for Michel gets the better of him. The film ends on an ambigious note with Franck lost in the woods after dark seeking not help, but Michel. I already didn't believe in the characters by this time, but at the end of the film, I started to genuinely resent them.

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Erich Kuersten said...

I agree man, The Story of Film is invaluable as a look at the side of film I've never had much use for - the 'serious' realism/classical style -with all the poor people and poverty and harshness and drab boring 'farmer staring at a potato for nine hours' kitchen sink realism that entails - never been a fan! To hell with realism! Life is, at it's best, hardly endurable. That's why death as 24 frames a second is the only sensible option.

Kevin Matthews said...

I had to avoid reading the rest for now, as you gave a spoiler warning and I am keen to see this one for myself, but absolutely agree with you on the inherent problem with the overview of cinema provided by Cousins. I enjoyed many moments of that series, and spent just as much time gritting my teeth.