Friday, March 21, 2014

Stranger By The Lake (2013): Blood in the Sand

Stranger By The Lake (2013)
dir: Alain Guiraudie

For the largest part of the 20th century and earlier, gay men have tended to live in secret. They also fucked in secret. A lot of this was because just the simple act of fucking, even in your own private home, was considered illegal and a prosecutable crime. In many parts of the world homosexuality still is an illegal act. In the cases of some countries (in 2014), the laws are regressing to make it more illegal and even punishable by death.

Even through the 70s, it was difficult to find places which would allow you to congregate in anonymity. The closet was rampant, sex had to be fleeting actions with no names or phone numbers attached. Closeted men needed a place to go where they couldn't be traced. Bathhouses were an option, but you generally had to pay to go in, plus ID checking, and they're just Bars were too public, especially because they were raided frequently.

In this atmosphere, the public cruising culture developed. Cruising happens in public, in the open, in an area where it is generally acceptable for gay people to be, except you can feign ignorance if you're spotted there...unless you're caught with your pants down. It was originally meant for anonymous hookups to get your rocks off in order to sustain your otherwise straight life back at home with the wife and kids. Or, to have anonymous no-strings-attached sex with other men, because men are biologically driven to stick it everywhere in order to spread their own genes.

Cruising is generally restricted to dedicated areas, where most straight people can wander in, but either know not to or don't notice much of anything happening. A furtive glance, a walking past somebody, unspoken gestures...this is all the signal it takes for the public cruise to happen. And then it is taken to a more secluded area, in the bushes, where you can delight in transgressive public man-on-man sex without a word having ever been spoken. Nobody knows your name, your address, your phone number. No credit card information is on record. You're not on security video. Your image only exists in the mind of the man you hooked up with.

Stranger By The Lake is steeped in cruising culture. It takes place on a beach where nudity is accepted by the powers that be. That area of the beach is also attached to the woods where men cruise and participate in anonymous sex. This beach can only be reached by a small access road leading to a tiny parking lot followed by a long jaunt through the forest onto the beach, separated by rocky cliffs or structures on either side. This is a highly accurate description of most of the areas where one can cruise. Difficult to find without prior knowledge, hard to get to with the knowledge, and secluded from most prying eyes.

On this section of beach, we meet Franck, our protagonist. A middle-aged man, probably mid-30s, Franck had been a regular at the beach in previous seasons, and is just now coming back to the beach. But, there is a new guy on the beach, Henri. Well, not ON the beach. He sits on the rocky bluff that sits on one side of the beach.

Henri is a definitive character in gay culture. He's a closeted bisexual (if not a closeted gay). He claims to have been with a girlfriend or wife for a few years, before he had sex with a generous talented guy. Now, Henri doesn't fit in with the straight crowd anymore, so he sits back near the gay crowd. But, there's something else that separates him from the gay culture. He's fat. Not just overweight, but fat. Which, in gay culture, means he's a pariah from the normal gays. In modern times, there is the bear culture, but that doesn't really cross over much into the cruising culture due to body issues.

Gay men are shallow. Well, most of them. They are also cliquish. Well, most of them. It's been a problem for years, and everybody knows of these problems and there have been thinkpieces and yadda yadda yadda. Even the newly developed bear culture became cliquish, to the point where I heard about one heavyset guy who hooked up with a thinner guy, and the thinner guy was like "I know I'm not large like you, but I just really like heavy guys? Is that so wrong?" It was really telling about not only body issues within the gay culture, but also the demand that like stick with like, as well as the hardwiring that we all have with who we are physically attracted to.

All of this gay neuroses and body issues come to a head in cruising culture, where men feel free to shun those whom they aren't attracted to based on their physical appearance. It's just sex, and you're attracted to who you're attracted to, the old adage goes. Well, in general, that has traditionally left the fat men to deal with the body issues that have plagued them since forever. They're left in isolation.

That is how we meet Henri. Wearing sandals, shorts and a shirt next to a nude beach, while fondly looking at the naked men frolicking. He watches, observes and understands that most men won't approach him, and he's developed his own walls of protective mentalities in order to deal with that. Yet, he also knows the score that many people there are ostensibly straight men leading straight lives who go home to their girlfriends. Even if Franck, and several other men present, are gay men who lead gay lives, and some of them are cruising or watching with their boyfriends, husbands, significant others, whatevers.

While hanging out with Henri, Franck spots the third major character of Stranger By The Lake comes onto the scene, Michel. Michel is a throwback creature to the 1970s, as signified by his hair and '70s porn stache. Really, that's the only major signifiers most of these people have. Their looks, and their clothes. Michel immediately becomes the focus of Franck, who immediately dumps Henri in order to chase Michel into the woods hoping for a good fuck, but is derailed when Michel already found another partner, in whose ass he buries his face.

The next day, Franck actually manages to talk to Michel, but is interrupted by the fourth character of Stranger By The Lake, Michel's then boyfriend. There is one more character in Stranger By The Lake, that of Inspector Damroder. Which should tell you what happens next.

The thing Stranger By The Lake doesn't do is hold your hand. All of the above 11 paragraphs in which I haven't told you much of anything about the actual plot of Stranger By The Lake is information that is left to be deduced by the audience. This isn't a movie made for a straight audience in order to help them understand the gay lifestyle. This isn't a movie for gays who are just now coming out of the closet to try to help them understand their role in the world. There is a LOT of knowledge that is in Stranger By The Lake, and it's presented in almost a documentary style, but without the David Attenborough voice over.

That isn't to say that Stranger By The Lake isn't accessible. There is such craft and detail given by Guiraudie that many straights can start to piece together the behaviors of gay men just by pure transposition of the bits of information that the straight men have collected from the world around them. The behaviors of the gay men in the wild is recognizable as the same behaviors that are used in clubs, bars, workplaces, gyms, and other public venues around the world. There's just more penis and public sex.

And there is a lot of penis. PENISES EVERYWHERE. The only person who never shows his penis is Henri, the fat man. When Franck gets naked to Henri, Henri stays in his shorts and keeps his arms futilely crossed over his body simultaneously trying to hide his fatness, but also re-emphasizing it. Guiraudie made Stranger by the Lake so explicit in a reaction to gay films like I'm So Excited! and the 1313 series which even hid the gay sex in queer filmmaking. Of course, by "so explicit" I mean there's a big screen ejaculation, and some penetration, all done by body doubles. This is all part of a newer queer movement to get sex back on screen in gay film making, with the likes of Weekend, Keep the Lights On, Interior. Leather Bar.Concussion, and Homme Au Bain (Man At Bath) leading the charges. Most of this movement has origins in 2006's Shortbus. It's an Equal Sex Film Movement, or something. I'll leave the coining to somebody else.

The thing that makes Stranger By The Lake so different from its other brethren is its ties to the 1970s. Guiraudie made a film that is a smashing of the 1970s and modern times, and has made a film that throws back to the original gay porn films, most strikingly the first segment of Wakefield Poole's Boys in the Sand. Both have gorgeous shots of men walking out of a lake to hookup with their object of obsession. Both have explicit sex in sun-dappled areas of a forest, and both are completely sex based without wasting much time on words between the characters who do have sex.

Of course, Stranger By The Lake isn't just a porn film. And, it doesn't exactly let the cruising culture off the hook. After a murder happens after hours, their towel and sneakers remain in the same spot for days. Their car remains parked in the parking lot for days. Nobody notices. Nobody calls the cops. The person just disappeared. The only reason the cops come in the first place is that the body turns up outside of the cruising area. But, there is such a need for secrecy and a desire for privacy that people only stop going to the beach for a day. The next day, the cruisers start coming back to the area.

Guiraudie has made a film that is steeped in knowledge of a small subsect of a small culture that lies outside the mainstream culture. This is a queer film, steeped in queer knowledge, made for queer people by queer people, that offers no easy insight for the straight community that would lie outside the community this film was made for. It's also a commentary on that subsect of a counter culture. And, it is keenly observant.

What I'm not going to do is tell you that this is a thriller, that it is Hitchcockian, or even evoking of Patricia Highsmith. There really is no mystery in the movie, though there is tension. The final 5-10 minutes are the most baffling and disappointing of the movie. Where this movie excels is setting the scene, and also in the characters. We get to know these characters through their idle conversations with other people, as well as their behaviors. The varieties of sex, both unsafe and ultra-safe. The risk of HIV. Everything seems to be observed and documented. If you were to have asked me as a closeted teenager who hadn't watched a gay film in his life, "what would a gay movie be like?", I would have described something that would have very much like Stranger By The Lake.

Required Viewing.

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