For a film set entirely at a sun-dazzled lakeside during a hot summer, Stranger by the Lake is impressively dark and claustrophobic. It’s as much a subtle, eerie bad dream as it is a disorientating thriller, playing with time and using its setting to trap the viewer and create an atmosphere that is, at times, almost unbearably tense.
The film revolves around a gay cruising spot on the secluded shore of a lake, where men meet during the summer for casual sex. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is a regular whose routine is broken by the arrival of the mysterious Michel (Christophe Paou – think Michael Fassbender with slightly darker hair and a moustache), who he witnesses committing a violent and seemingly unprovoked act.
Stranger by the Lake is essentially an exploration of Franck’s loss of innocence and dark, sexual awakening – themes that are perfectly reflected in the film’s choice of setting. Every single scene takes place at the lake (whether it’s on the shore, in the lake itself, or in the woods directly behind the lake), giving Stranger the feel of a play. And while the bright sunshine and openness of the location – the lake is a wide, shimmering expanse and the woods behind it a seemingly endless maze – seem at first to reflect an atmosphere of freedom and opportunity, this is gradually reversed. As the lights go down and then come up on the same car park day after day, the atmosphere morphs into one of claustrophobia. The main character seems bound to the spot, trapped by the decisions he’s made and forced to return over and over again to see out his doomed love affair with Michel.
As if to re-enforce this, time takes on a strange quality in the film. Although only days pass over its duration, it could well be weeks, or even months – the characters seem frozen in one long, endless summer, living out their lives in a small and distant microcosm. There’s the sense that nothing else really exists but the lake, and even if Franck wanted to escape – or to ask for help from someone on the outside – he couldn’t.
In this way, the structure, setting and pace of Stranger by the Lake do an excellent job of reflecting its themes and the development of its central characters (characters that are well-drawn, well acted and realistic). There are some minor flaws (the main character’s willingness to pursue Michel despite what he knows about him doesn’t quite seem to fit, for instance), but these are overshadowed by how brilliantly executed the film is as a whole. It’s beautifully shot, the script is excellent, and the tension is never too far below the surface.