Alain Guiraudie’s “Stranger by the Lake,” which opens in New York on January 24, has a deceptively simple premise. Frank (Pierre Deladonchamps), an affable young man, returns each day to a secluded lake that doubles as a cruising spot. There, he chats with friends, including the quiet Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), swims in the glowing blue water, and finds companionship in the woods that surround the beach. One day he meets Michel (Christophe Paou), a seductive but mysterious individual. The two become tangled in a murder that happens on the lake as their desire spirals out of control.
In a conversation with ARTINFO, Guiraudie, joined by a translator, discussed the narrative benefits of shooting at a lake, nature as a character, and how the explicit sex in the film didn’t go far enough.
How did you land upon setting the film at the lake?
The origin of the film, the idea of the lake, was something very simple for me. It’s the kind of lake I’m familiar with, it’s the kind of place I went to. It’s a place where everyone has their place, but it’s also a very democratic kind of place. You see all kinds of people and everyone comes there. I was also interested in doing a film out in the open air, with lots of sunshine.
The lake you chose for the film is very specific in its shape, which resembles a horn. It gives the setting a claustrophobic atmosphere, even though it’s out in the open.
I wanted a lake in the sunniest region of France, and the water at this lake is really beautiful. The beach that’s in the film wasn’t the first choice, actually — the first choice was a little different. But this beach, we called it banana-shaped, lends itself very well to the story we were telling. You have the place where Henri sits, which enables him to look from his vantage point to see the beach. From the beach where all the naked men are, they are in a position where they can always see where Henri is. So the configuration of the shoreline worked very well. Also, I think with this particular lake, it was important we also considered the ultimate tragedy, the Greek tragedy of the film, and shape of the lake has some of those elements too.
Do you see the lake as a character?
It’s interesting that you ask that question. I like that it comes up, but it’s not something that I intellectualize. To me, characters are men and women — they’re human beings. But, you know, it pleases me that people notice this, because I worked very hard on the images in the film.
With its use of repetition and a circular structure, were you attempting the narrative to mirror the lake, which as you said has tragic elements to it?
I think more than a circular structure for me it was a triangular structure. You have the triangle of the three characters — Michel, Frank, and Henri — and things circulate from one or the other. But Frank is the focal point, so you see the motion that way. And the motion, instead of a circle, was more like a spiral — a spiral of desire that was created in the film. It wasn’t something that I did deliberately. As far as what happens on the lake, what I wanted to do was to start with this area of the lake — it’s wide open, it’s sunny, it’s beautiful — and then gradually, as the film continues, things become more and more closed in as it moves to the forest. Perhaps it was a combination of that, the setting they were working in, but what was circulating between, not just these three men, but all of the men, that I wasn’t aware of while we were shooting but became evident while we were editing the film. It was during the editing that this idea of the spiral of desire really popped out for me.
The film features no music, but the sound design is consciously focused on the shoreline, the water, the wind in the trees.
We were shooting without any added sound and we wanted to go with as natural a sound as possible. This was a major choice I made. As a result, when we were doing the final edit of the film there was very little cleanup we had to do because we were sticking with the sounds as they had occurred during the shooting. We were able not to pile on additional layers of sound, so in the end it was very pure. We did add some sound at the end, but they were based on the sounds recorded while filming. They were put together as a sort of symphony of the natural sounds.
Were you aware the sex was going to be such a main focal point in the reception in the film? [When the film was released in France in June, the poster was removed from certain suburbs due to its perceived graphic nature.]
I actually planned to include a lot more explicit sex in the film. In the end, I decided not to show penetration without a contraceptive, for ethical reasons. We used doubles in the scenes, and it would have been difficult to ask doubles, who don’t know each other, to have unprotected sex. I used, of course, professional doubles, but I could have easily called upon a couple in real life. I just didn’t go to the limit with that. I think I’m going to go a little further in the future. With this whole question of sex, I’m going really slowly and really carefully, because in this film there are only really two explicit sex scenes. I think also my desire in making this film was not to shock the bourgeoisie, but it was really to show a film where there’s this fluid process between the actual sex and the passion that is being expressed, and I think to achieve that end is why I ultimately chose to include less explicit sex. Do you think the sex scenes have caused a polemic?
I wouldn’t say polemic, but they are at the front of the conversation, for sure.
In that sense, yeah. I agree [laughs]. I was talking to the film distributor in Germany, where the film didn’t do well. They felt the film didn’t do well there was because the critics had put too much emphasis on just talking about the sex. There are more scenes with people talking on the beach than sex scenes [laughs].