ALAIN GUIRAUDIE’S NEW FILM and festival favorite, L’inconnu du lac, observes the unfolding of a series of relations between men at a lakeside cruising spot. The film focuses on bodies in action, and yet we are not merely or only watching individuals doing things with and to each other. The film rather presents a kind of staging of a mind, with actions and reactions figuring as parts of a psyche working itself out.
After a young man drowns, an older gaunt detective breaches the otherwise insulated location to question those that return day after day, apparently unmoved by the mysterious death. Cornering our protagonist Franck after dark, Inspector Damroder demands to know how Franck and the others could be so indifferent to the death of one of “their own.” He admonishes Franck to “show some concern for himself,” and marvels aloud, “You guys have a strange way of loving each other.”
As in all fantasies of interrogation, the law’s demand for revelation and confession is intimate and invasive, posing questions that suggest something shameful on the part of the interrogated. Damroder actually seems less interested in solving the murder than in extracting from Franck some sort of justification both for himself and “his own.” Indeed, the murder itself does not carry the plot of L’inconnu du lac. There is no mystery as to who the murderer is, either for Franck or the viewer — we see the drowning, from Franck’s point of view, in a single unblinking four-minute shot. The real unknown of this film, then — the l’inconnu of the title — is not the killer, but Franck.
The English translation of Alain Guiraudie’s L’inconnu du lac is “Stranger by the Lake,” a translation that loses the rich ambiguity of the French. While “Stranger by the Lake” specifies some stranger, some person, L’inconnu du lac allows the unknown to remain undetermined. That is, with the French title, the film’s orienting concern is diffused: it might not only be about one particular unfamiliar person, but about some less exact unknown. Guiraudie’s is not only about those others whom we don’t ultimately know, but about the ways we can be strangers to ourselves, and the ways in which we work out who we are in what we do, often in the dark.
Franck is introduced as a kind, yet self-assured, young gay man who has just found himself without a job. He is attractive; as his new friend Henri observes, he could pass for straight — or in Henri’s words, he seems “normal.” It is the beginning of the summer and the film opens with Franck’s first visit to the beach this year. We learn that while cruising is his consistent pastime, he is actually looking for a real relationship, for someone with whom he can have dinner. The film is composed largely of point of view shots, letting us see what Franck sees, and while some of these shots are plot-driven — we see who he wants, who he is sleeping with, who he is hiding from — many are scenes of indefinite reflection: shots of water and sky and wind in the trees. One of the only shots that is unanchored from Franck, and to which Guiraudie returns like a metronome, is the high angle, wide shot of the lake parking lot with which the film begins. More than half a dozen times we return to this perch to watch Franck’s car pull slowly into a space. The shot functions to punctuate the film, not in order to signal development or the passage of time, but on the contrary, to signal our capture in repetition, in a kind of perpetual present.
Nearly everything in the film is presented as a closed series of patterns of repetition. The space itself is fully insulated, the only setting of the entire film; scenes of action are bookended by shots of wind-blown treetops, migrating clouds, and the surface of the lake; bodies mirror one another, and interactions are reprised again and again. The “other side” of the lake is discussed as though it were another planet, and while occasional reference is made to a character’s job, or to a time before the summer, or to an evening happy hour, these all seem extremely distant, almost intangible. When Franck proposes to his new love interest, Michel, that he would like to see him outside the woods, it is not only that Michel is too non-committal to acquiesce, but that the prospect of life outside the woods becomes over the course of the film increasingly unimaginable.
Other reviewers have noted that the film is structured around a series of divisions, and have pointed out that these can be seen as allegories of social divisions — between gay and heterosexual spaces, or between freedom and the law. This is at least partly right. But by taking such care to insulate the action, in the echoing and doubling of acts and persons, and in returning so often to the oneiric medium of water — in the depths of which lurks an apocryphal fish of Loch Ness proportions — L’inconnu du lac should also be understood as a film exploring not inter-subjective but rather intra-psychic divisions and relations.
The story itself primarily concerns two relationships and the murders that link them. On the one hand, Franck befriends the sad-eyed, fully-clothed, saggy-bodied Henri who sits alone, far enough from the cruisers to be isolated, but not so far as to be separate. He hovers like an unpopular sibling or half-forgotten dream, until the end when he joins the cruisers and radically redirects the course of events. Where the murder only facilitates further repetition — the beach visits and the sex carry on — Henri’s final deed, a feat of self-sacrificial passivity, is the film’s only true action.
We first see Henri from Franck’s perspective as he swims in the middle of the lake; the shot is buoyant and focused, as the camera unsteadily and almost imperceptibly zooms in on Henri, as though both Franck and we were drawn to him by unknown forces. Franck climbs out of the water and sits with Henri, and so begins a gentle, genuine, and intimate friendship. They speak candidly, especially about their other relationships. While Henri is physically uncomfortable — he keeps his arms wrapped around himself as he sits and often leans away from Franck — Guiraudie avoids the ready cliché of presenting him as a prude to play off the sexually gregarious Franck. It turns out that Henri had a girlfriend and that he even experimented with men. And yet Henri has apparently never met, never even heard of, a “real” gay man. That one might simply be gay, and not keep one foot in straight culture, seems to him amazing and inconceivable. Like the inspector, Henri queries Franck on the very fact of his being gay, and Franck is again put in the position of having to speak for “his kind.” Unlike with the inspector, however, with Henri, Franck is not defensive or ashamed; instead he is ready to explain what it means to be gay, as if to a marveling child.
On the other hand, Franck pines for and then begins having sex with Michel, a pin-up character straight out of the 1970s, the perfect composite of Tom Selleck and Tom of Finland, empty of feeling or motive, pure drive. As Franck knows, Michel is also the murderer.
In contrast with lumpy, wary Henri, Michel is a fantasy of sexuality incarnate. He seems somehow of another element; we first see him emerging from the water, and indeed he shares in the alienness, evasiveness, and power of the lake’s fearsome fish. At first Michel is attached to a young man who gets fussy when he catches Michel and Franck speaking together. But this obstacle to Michel is quickly dispensed with — Franck witnesses Michel drowning the young man after dark, in a high, long shot that fills the screen with water, presenting the struggling figures in dark silhouette, the scene ending with clouds migrating across a purple sky. It is as though Franck’s wish that Michel was available makes it so. From then on, Franck and Michel enter a charged sexual relationship, with Franck becoming increasingly desperate for more in the way of a committed relationship; indeed he begins to display the same clingy fussiness of Michel’s victim. Shortly after Michel and Frank start seeing each other, the equilibrium of the beach is disturbed by the appearance of police helicopters and Inspector Damroder.
It is now commonplace to see thrillers as drawing a tight connection between sex and guilt, sex and risk — Hitchcock was one of the first masters of the genre, and these themes were brought to a conservative fever pitch in the American erotic thrillers of the 1980s. It would not be wrong to see L’inconnu du lac as an erotic thriller pivoting on the question of how to live with AIDS — as a person, as a couple, and as a community — some 30 years after it came into our world. While there is no explicit mention of AIDS, characters are drawn in terms of their attitudes towards it. Michel seems a relic of a pre-AIDS era, both in his iconic vintage looks and his readiness for unprotected sex. By contrast, the unnamed man with whom Franck first hooks up immediately asks for a condom, and his close-trimmed beard, sensible backpack, and age mark him as distinctly post-90s. Naturally, relations with the former type of man turn out to be deadly. Here it would seem like L’inconnu du lac was a standard if artfully done erotic thriller, where the realization of fantasy comes only at the greatest cost.
But then what of Henri? If the film uses characters to explore Franck’s intrapsychic dynamics, it is easier to place the other figures: Michel is a kind of insatiable and threatening id, Damroder the disapproving if feeble voice of the law, while the unnamed partner represents the possibility of responsible, self-respecting gay adulthood (not to mention the handful of other cruisers who look at Franck but never speak, flickering moments of unrealized self-reflection). But Henri cannot be immediately placed into such a function. If the movie is a kind of exploration of inwardness by way of public acts and relations, what does Franck’s relation with Henri reveal?
In a sense, Henri is like an unreflective medium through which Franck’s experiences are filtered and find imperfect expression. After Franck and Michel first get together, Henri — not knowing this — tells Franck that he can’t wait to get back to work, that here at the lake he just sits and thinks all day. Following Franck’s first interrogation by Damroder, where he becomes visibly more upset than the remorseless Michel, Henri — again knowing nothing of this — reports, for no reason, that he is “kind of depressed today.” Whereas Franck is distracted by his new partner and seems like the kind of man who perhaps takes little very seriously — he has no job, and apparently no other interests than cruising — Henri sits on the beach and thinks too much. Further, Henri seems to know that Franck cannot maintain both of his relationships — with Henri and with Michel — and that one of them, like summer itself, must come to an end. Franck, meanwhile, seems convinced that his relations are not mutually exclusive, that each day he can return to the beach and cross back and forth across the rocks, visiting Henri and always returning to Michel.
The moment that finally pierces these patterns and forces something to happen is actually the only moment in the film where we are privy to events to which Franck is not. The scene begins with Franck and Michel laying on the beach holding hands, advanced to a new stage of intimacy or commitment. In the distance we see Henri walking towards his spot on his edge of the beach, and for the first time, Franck looks up but does not go to him. Instead he walks into the water and begins a leisurely backstroke. As he is swimming, Henri stands up and begins walking towards Michel, crossing for the first time onto the cruising beach and thereby undoing a boundary between himself and the rest of the men, between himself and the other half of Franck’s life. Michel begins their conversation by asking if Henri isn’t bored just sitting there alone everyday, and suggests that the other men think he is “weird.” Henri counters with an almost direct accusation that Michel is the murderer (and it isn’t clear how he would know this, since Franck never told him and was the only witness to the crime). After making his case, Henri rises and tells Michel he is going to take a stroll in the woods, crossing yet another boundary. Michel follows him. All the while, Franck floats weightless on his back.
The film’s final moments take place in near total darkness with Franck alone in the woods. All distinction between himself and his surroundings collapses, all other characters are gone. The camera settles on Franck, centering him in the shot from the shoulders up. An intimate close-up like this might normally indicate Franck’s interiority, his reflection on what he’s been through; but instead the screen is nearly black, we and Frank see nothing. What is the best way to know a mind? Is it through what we avow to ourselves when conscientiously reflecting on who we are — in monologue for instance? Or are minds shown in what bodies do, in the moments when we think we are being least reflective, least vulnerable? Guiraudie’s great skill is his construction of a story about interiority told entirely externally, by way of the relations that circle in a single place. The suggestion of this film is that the work of understanding who we are and what we are doing is neither intentional nor self-aware but rather more like groping around, charged and frightened in the dark. By the end, everything is obliterated, with Franck disoriented in the night, by himself.