#1. Stranger by the Lake (L'inconnu du lac), d. Alain Guiraudie, France
I think it’s usually a good idea to announce your biases upfront. One of my leanings happens to be toward queer cinema. Despite that leaning (and the fact that four of the ten listed here could fit under that umbrella), I’m fairly certain in all the years I’ve made these Best of the Year lists, no queer film has claimed the top spot. Even if I had made lists for 2010 through 2012, that would still be true (with the likely #1’s being Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy in 2010, Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret or Bertrand Bonello’s House of Tolerance in 2011, and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty in 2012). Is it that there aren’t a lot of queer films out there worthy of being dubbed the “best” of the year? Am I too harsh in my judgements of queer films (as they’ve been one of my main areas of interest for as long as I can remember)? Whatever the case may be, I can’t think of a more appropriate film than Stranger by the Lake to bestow such an “honor” upon. Cahiers du Cinéma agrees. What sets this brilliant, menacing, sexy, haunting (a keyword that kept coming up as I assembled this list) film apart from any of the queer films I’ve seen in recent years (including this year’s #2) is the mastery of Alain Guiraudie’s vision and execution, in both cinematic terms and in its queer representation/identity.
Set entirely on a secluded nude beach that serves as a cruising area for men, Stranger by the Lake explores the complexities of gay male desire—something altogether unique from its heterosexual or female counterparts—in exciting and revealing ways, all under the guise of a murder mystery. I always hesitate to give too much away when writing about a film like this, but the plot centers around a murder witnessed by the protagonist, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps). What follows is the sort of suspenseful and voyeuristic perversion that you know Hitchcock would have loved, but there’s something truly remarkable and unique about how the murder unfolds and how the tension escalates from there. Guiraudie employs none of the narrative or camera tricks you’d expect from the genre. The audience is consistently on the same page as Franck, which is a lot less common of a perspective than you’d think, so as he grapples with the conflict between his sexual desire, romantic longing, moral compass, and sense of personal safety, the audience is drawn even closer to the danger.
For avoiding the manipulative genre tropes, Guiraudie manages to give Stranger by the Lake an otherworldly feel (something you can also see present in nearly all of his other excellent films)… an ominous, treacherous lake, possibly harboring mythological underwater creatures as well as dead bodies, surrounded by labyrinthine woods where men fuck half-hidden, half-exposed; a rock beach where naked men in tennis shoes scatter, always keeping a watchful, silent eye on each other; the stranger by the lake (Christophe Paou, who’s tied with Adèle Exarchopoulos for the sexiest person of 2013 if you ask me), a dead ringer for Magnum P.I. with the bluest eyes and a stare you can feel; an inquisitive detective (Jérôme Chappatte) lurking in the shadows. Stranger by the Lake is a truly astonishing cinematic experience that has resonated with me like few films have, best seen projected larger than life on the big screen in a dark theatre filled with strangers.
Stranger by the Lake will begin a limited theatrical run in the U.S. via Strand Releasing on 24 January. Peccadillo Pictures in the U.K. will release the film on 21 February. The film is currently available on DVD in France through Epicentre Films.
With: Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou, Patrick D’Assumçao, Jérôme Chappatte, Mathieu Vervisch, Gilbert Traïna, Emmanuel Daumas, Sébastien Badachaoui, Gilles Guérin, François Labarthe, Alain Guiraudie