Alain Guiraudie’s newest film, “Stranger by the Lake,” is a languorous and stunning exploration of the ties that bind sex and death. It centers on a murder that takes place in the dead of night at a popular gay cruising spot in the idyllic woods of the South of France. It’s sexually explicit, but in a matter-of-fact sort of way – this isn’t the foregrounded sensational erotica of fellow Cannes prize-winner “Blue Is the Warmest Color.” Rather, Guiraudie’s film is something much, much more inscrutable and ephemeral.
As a result, it raises a whole bunch of fascinating questions. We sat down with Guiraudie to talk about the richly and very consciously created gaps in his film, and the way that he breaks up time and subtly builds an atmosphere of passion and fear. We talked about landscape painting, AIDS, community, mythology and, of course, cruising for men on the Internet.
FILM.COM: Compared to your other films, "Stranger by the Lake" is set in a less fantastical world. Except for maybe the suggestion of the 30-foot fish.
ALAIN GUIRAUDIE: And even the fish is a little bit fantastic, though there are fish that grow to be that size. Even if this film is anchored in reality, I could tell you the plot: “Here is a man who falls in love with somebody else, who falls in love with this man, then the guy kills someone and he's still in love with him” - I could tell you this and you might not see it as being realistic even though it's done in a real setting.
Film.com: So do places like this, the lake where men, often with wives, go to cruise, still exist?
Guiraudie: This is a typically American question, and English as well. Yes, they still exist.
Film.com: Which is fascinating, because they don't here, not really anymore.
Guiraudie: So everyone is on the Internet?
Film.com: Well, yes. And so from an American perspective there is a sort of wistful melancholy about how this lake once existed, but does not anymore.
Guiraudie: I think even in France there is a kind of nostalgia for these kinds of places because right now most cruising is done via the Internet. And even in France when you are at a place like this, the people who are doing the cruising tend to be old.
You know, maybe that's one of the things that my film is about, this evolution of the whole cruising scene from this idyllic beautiful setting by the lake to the inferno that is the Internet.
Film.com: That's interesting, because when I watched the film again this week I realized that, while the physical place may no longer exists, many of the character types still very much exist in the Internet context. And if you look at the lake as a metaphor, it still works.
Guiraudie: Yeah, whether you meet them and go for a drink or connect via the Internet, it's the same.
Film.com: Do you think that men are more or less themselves when they are at the lake, compared to the way they are in their everyday lives? Or do they assume an entirely different role, playing someone else?
Guiraudie: Some people do and some people don't. You have to remember that this is a story, and in a story we have actors, and these actors are playing the role of these gay men who are there, and all of these gay men represent the different types who are there, and are those types playing a role? So it can really end up in a downward spiral that is just too frightening.
Film.com: So we'll move somewhere else, that might be also frightening. Towards the end of the film, the inspector says to Franck: "One of your own was killed two days ago, and you're all already back." I wonder if this touches on something true, for you.
Guiraudie: It's not even so specifically about the gay community. The inspector is raising the question of what it means to be a community, or to be part of a community. That's what he's asking, whether it's the homosexual community or any other type of community. And I think what's really basic in this film is that I'm making an allusion to one of the darker, if not the darkest period in our history, the gay community and AIDS. At the same time it could just have easily been another community. For example in the Holocaust there were six million Jews killed, and there were people in their communities who knew what was happening and yet did nothing to stop it. You can ask even that same type of question there too.
And on a larger scale, what does it mean to be a human being in the human community?
Film.com: Wow. That's a very big idea.
Guiraudie: When the inspector says "someone just died and you're all continuing to live," the response is "Yes, we're all continuing to live our lives." That's what it shows.
Film.com: Given that, specifically around AIDS, and the notion of this loss that we can all feel. In America it can feel as if some are worried that the community is beginning to forget that, and I wonder if that is also a concern for you. Is the film a reminder of this loss?
Guiraudie: I don't really know necessarily that it's meant as a reminder of what it was, but it's true that in this film AIDS hovers over everyone and everything. It's because it was an experience that was common to all of us. It was something that was part of our community, so in that sense rather than a reminder it's just what we live through, and what we live through together.
Just for me personally, I'm really surprised that AIDS is something that is no longer present in films, or very rarely.
Film.com: While I was preparing for this, I found a conversation between you and João Pedro Rodrigues, in which you said that emotion doesn't come from characters showing emotions. I think that might be part of why things like this need to be unpacked in the film, because none of these ideas are exactly on the surface. So I wonder how you create this kind of emotionality that doesn't directly come from expressed emotions.
Guiraudie: You know, I've never cried because I saw someone on the screen crying and I've never laughed because I saw someone on the screen laughing. And if I see someone who's afraid, I'm not going to be afraid.
I think that it is necessary to find other ways. For me it's something very complicated, and it's really difficult for me to explain. I know it's something I look for with my actors. In many ways it's something that's just very intuitive.
It's important that you don't show the viewer everything. And the viewer doesn't come to be shown everything, the viewer comes to look for things. It's important in a film that you leave certain gaps, and that you don't show everything, and that you maintain mystery about things.
In this film in particular we worked a great deal, beginning with the writing and going all the way through editing, taking things out and removing things because we wanted to create this mystery. The idea was that we would explain only those things that strictly needed to be explained. What's interesting is that very often even though we wrote some scenes, I would see during the editing process that even those scenes could be cut because what was being said could already be seen.
And also this was something important when working with the actors. For example, when working with Michel, we worked very hard to have him give as little of himself as possible. For Franck, at first he gave too much with his face. So we worked to remove that. Here I feel almost as if I'm giving a cinema class, as Robert Bresson would have done.
Film.com: I was also reminded this time of Aki Kaurismäki's “La Vie de Bohème” and his work in general, even though he does it more for comedy than suspense. His actors also give very little.
Guraudie: The problem for me is that it's very mannered in his films. It becomes very mannered in Kaurismäki's work, that he always removes everything.
Film.com: Another thing I noticed while watching it again was the very short period of time in which the film takes place. And I thought of "Weekend," which is also about two men falling into a passionate sexual relationship in a short time but is very romantic. Your film is not very romantic, and I wonder whether your take is the more truthful.
Guiraudie: You don't really need a lot of time to fall in love. My story takes place over the course of ten days. It's interesting for me, that in the cinema you often have this dilation of time. My story, yes it takes place over the course of ten days, but it isn't ten days one after the other. You could have one today, and the next day takes place three days later. Unless you have a note in the film that says "three months later," you as the viewer don't get the specific sense of how much time is passing. I think that as far as you're concerned it could be the next day. Playing with time in this way, expanding or contracting but not giving a clear sense of time, intensifies the story that you're trying to tell. The use of the ellipse and the use of this concentration of time is very important.
Film.com: And perhaps makes it universal, in a way?
Guiraudie: That's exactly it. You can almost feel that it becomes mythical for you, by the way you deal with time.
Film.com: Ok, I have one more confusing question. When I was watching the film again I kept thinking about landscapes, and the Hudson River School and the Canadian Group of Seven in particular. They painted landscapes in order to create space that became national art. Obviously your film is not nationalistic or anything like that, but I wonder if your film in a way uses landscapes in a similar way to re-naturalize the male form. There are all of these stunning shots of the lake paired with shots of naked men, and I think perhaps it does something to our idea of the nude male form.
And I say "re-naturalize," in particular, because here in the US it seems that male nudity is either hidden completely out of fear or used as a source of comedy.
Guiraudie: It's true. One of the things that I always try to do in my films is to not only take the actors and place them in a specific setting, but also in this film to take the naked man and to put him in this very natural setting. I wanted to show the men as being nude but I didn't want to do it in a way that would be primitive. That's why you see them cruising in the forest they're either wearing shorts or t-shirts. I didn't want to focus on that.
But I like this word "re-naturalize" because that's what it is. I did want to see the naked body in this natural setting, and that it was all one whole.
"Stranger by the Lake" is now in theaters.