The world of Alain Guiraudie is a world in a hurry. I mean this quite literally. “Stranger by the Lake,” his newest and most critically acclaimed film, is one of few without a great deal of running about. His prior film is even called “The King of Escape.” Its third act is an extended chase through the south of France, the police pursuing a middle-aged gay tractor salesman and his sixteen-year old (female) lover over miles and miles of beautiful countryside. One of his early shorts is essentially nothing but frantic jogging, with some intriguing philosophical observations sprinkled along the way.
Guiraudie’s filmography, playing this weekend in a full retrospective at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center, is like a vast plain traversed by chaser and chased, hunter and hunted. This is how, despite its lack of actual sprinting, “Stranger by the Lake” fits in perfectly. Whether the two parties ever meet seems almost irrelevant in some of these films. What is important is the chase itself, the occasionally endless marathon that knows few physical limits. And in breaking apart time and space, Guiraudie poses some fascinating, often subtly complex questions of age and sex, life and death.
He pulls it off, in part, because so many of his films take place in entirely impossible places. In “Stranger by the Lake” there is only a hint of this. Early on in the film, Henri defends his refusal to actually go swimming with the claim that there could be 30-meter silurus (basically catfish) in the lake. It’s just a suggestion. In “The King of Escape,” however, there’s a plant that lends supernatural powers and overwhelming sexual drive. “Sunshine for the Scoundrels” and “Force of Circumstance” take place in entirely fictional worlds, with charismatic made-up names and strange fantastical rules. Guiraudie’s settings are often quite independent, separated from the mundane realities of human (and perhaps urban) life.
As a result, linear time often takes a break. In “That Old Dream That Moves,” set in a closing factory’s last operational week, time basically comes to a halt. The ten days of the plot of “Stranger by the Lake” either linger or quickly disappear, and there’s no way of knowing whether or not they’re consecutive. “No Rest for the Brave” resists time altogether, hinting at the idea of an “Inside Llewyn Davis”-esque loop without quite making the plunge. Watching a Guiraudie film is like taking a vacation from the calendar itself, meandering with imperceptible speed toward a faint skyline.
And the implications of all this bending of time and space? Death and sex. In “No Rest for the Brave” there are even two villages named, respectively, “Living Village” and “Dying Village” (loosely translated from Village-qui-vît and Village-qui-meurt). “Stranger by the Lake” is all about the connection between passion and death, and death is facilitated by the staggeringly beautiful tranquility of this place so far removed from the real world.
That’s only the beginning. Relationships crop up that you might not expect. The titular “King of Escape,” a middle-aged gay man with a soft spot for married men, convinces himself to fall for a teenage girl. The varied factory workers in “That Old Dream That Moves” pursue one another across lines of age and class. Every one of the aforementioned films contains at least one intergenerational affair. On the one hand the many intersecting desires of “Stranger by the Lake” seem more natural, but we also know next to nothing about the lives of these men beyond the seclusion of the forest. Who knows what sort of rules they’re breaking?
In a world without time or space, intergenerational love is nothing particularly shocking. This lack of judgment is aided by the way in which Guiraudie’s characters express themselves. Not unlike the acting style encouraged by Aki Kaurismäki, these French travelers interact with frankness and unadorned honesty. It can seem a bit distant at first, but after a few brusque moments you settle in. There is a warmth and understanding to this playfully explicit universe, one that thrives on attraction and pursuit rather than Kaurismäki’s deadpan pairing of comedy and tragedy.
This is, therefore, one of the most distinct and intriguing filmographies of the new cinematic century. Guiraudie and his vagabonds, by breezily bending the rules of time and space, have opened up a new door. His work is queer because his characters have queer relationships and queer sex, sure. But the excitement here comes from the way that he has queered an entire universe, removing our social hang-ups and replacing them with a playful game of tag. And while “Stranger by the Lake” is the first time Americans get to join in the chase, one can only hope that we get plenty more opportunities in the future.