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Stranger By The Lake review

If the upfront portrayals of murder and gay sex in Alain Guiraudie’s Cannes Queer Palm-winner tempt you to reach for the ‘erotic thriller’ tag, think again.

More arthouse than Joe Eszterhas; French auteur Guiraudie’s psycho-sexual drama is a probing, intoxicatingly cinematic slant on the rules of attraction – sculpting a study in sexual motives that manages to be refreshingly matter-of-fact, mysterious and leavened with unexpected mirth.

Guiraudie establishes the lay of the land patiently, closely following nice guy Franck (a likeable Pierre Deladonchamps) to a lake-side hot spot where men meet for sex.

The self-contained locale seems almost mythical, but Guiraudie keeps things down to earth with his eye for detail. Cruising codes are scrupulously observed; personal reasons, meanwhile, are teased into focus during Franck’s exploratory chats with naive observer Henri (Patrick D’Assumçao).

Events turn murky when Franck sees a murder, but this is no whodunit. Since we know that moustachioed hunk Michel (Christophe Paou) dunit, Guiraudie is free to shift his emphasis from plot to themes: desire and danger, intimacy and anonymity.

When Franck keeps his eye-witness knowledge a secret from a beady detective (Jérôme Chappatte), tension intensifies. As does the air of ambiguity. Stranger is too non-judgemental to be a critique of no-strings sex, despite what the copper’s words suggest.

So is Guiraudie twisting the conventions of erotic thrillers? Or, as some have argued, crafting an AIDS metaphor?

Meanings are elusive, which may frustrate anyone who wants clear answers. Yet Guiraudie makes magnetic work of making us stew, luring us in with a meticulous merger of ambient sound, expressive light-to-shade images, taut suspense and affable humour.

Comedy may sound like an odd fit in this charged context, but Guiraudie’s film is never aloof: it just sets its own rules of engagement.

Sun, sex, psychosis, skinny-dipping: it sounds like genre tat, but Guiraudie’s dark, droll study of a risky attraction upends expectations. It plays by stealth, but its sly grip is sure.

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