I spoke with French director Alain Guiraudie in anticipation of the US release of his much-acclaimed fourth feature Stranger by the Lake, a stunningly beautiful exploration of romance pushed to extremes of sex and death. If it didn’t take place on a gay cruising beach in the south of France and in the nearby woods where the men go to have sex, you might think it had been directed by Robert Bresson in an unusually sunny mood. The film hones in on the unusual triangle between Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a young gay vacationer, Michel (Christophe Paou), a beautiful gay swimmer, and Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), a portly straight man who hangs out at the edge of the beach.
Stranger by the Lake was a surprise box office hit in France, but few in the know were shocked that Guiraudie had delivered a masterpiece. A director for over twenty years, long acclaimed by no less an authority than Jean-Luc Godard, Guiraudie has now reached that level of mastery in which nothing inessential clutters the frame. Which isn’t to say there isn’t plenty to marvel at in his previous releases, which remain undistributed in the US. Luckily, the Film Society of Lincoln Center will be presenting a full retrospective of Guiraudie’s work from January 24th to 30th, with the director in attendance on opening weekend.
Interview translated from French by Nicholas Elliott.
Nicholas Elliott Stranger by the Lake is your fourth feature. Your previous films had a fanciful relationship to sexuality—particularly homosexuality—but this is the first time you really show sex between two men. What brought you to do that now?
Alain Guiraudie It’s been a slow progression toward the representation of the sex act and sexuality. Even just sexuality in-and-of itself, I had never faced the question of what it meant to get someone in your skin, to be with someone and make love to someone. Even my previous feature, King of Escape, had a kind of modesty, which had to do with the humor in that film.
I think we have a lot of trouble with sex because it scares the shit out of us. Whether you’re watching it or actually doing it, there is a terror of sex, because that’s what made us—even between men, despite the fact that it’s disconnected from reproduction. It was very, very difficult both to watch and direct Stranger by the Lake—because by directing sex scenes, you call on your own private life and memories, at least if you want to go off the beaten track and avoid filming academically, with the woman on top of the man and lots of close-ups.
On the one hand I was attempting to get as close as possible to reality and represent what takes place there, including its final taboos. At the same time there was something restraining me. It was hard to open myself up. These are complicated things, after all.
NE I like the fact that you answered my question not by talking about showing homosexuality, but sexuality in general, which is interesting in relation to this point in social history and to the fact that in France, for instance, the film was a real art house hit. It’s as if people—or some people—were ready to see a movie about sex without worrying whether it’s their own sexual identity or values being represented.
You’re known for traveling a great deal to present your films, so I assume you have a sense of your audience. Can you tell me what heterosexual audiences’ response has been?
AG My great satisfaction about this adventure is that people respond to this film as a film about passion and love and not a film about homosexuality, which is not the film’s theme. I believed that could be done even by showing a very particular sexuality, one that is both highly marginal and singular—because the world I describe is a singular one even within the gay world. Not every homosexual goes to nude cruising beaches! I was persuaded that the two extremes could be joined, that I could be universal by being very specific and local and even by taking my own thing as a starting point. That interested me ethically, politically, and aesthetically. Especially politically. I’ve always said that it really comes down to mixing my small personal history, my small personal concerns, with the overarching history of cinema and the world.
The audiences are not really gay audiences. Of course, there are homosexuals in the theater, but I would say it’s an “all-audiences” film. (laughter)
It really is surprising how you speak best to others by speaking of what is closest to you. I never experienced it to this extent before and I really wasn’t sure I would pull it off!
NE While the film isn’t about homosexuality, it does raise certain worrisome questions regarding the gay community. A young gay guy dies—he gets killed—and his belongings stay on the beach for days and no one really cares. People keep fucking. The inspector investigating the crime says to one of the guys cruising: “You have a strange way of loving each other. One of yours gets murdered and you keep fucking.” “Yours” to me implies an army or a race …
NE So I have to wonder whether you’re trying to send a message to the gay community or simply showing the state of things?
AG I really wanted to call into question some things that are inherent to the gay community, but also to any community. It was important for me to question the very notion of community. Do a dozen guys who have a common interest—namely nude sun-tanning on a beach and having sex in the nearby woods—make up a community? It’s funny that the inspector who speaks about community is the one who would like to see some solidarity in the community. When I wrote that character’s long, guilt-inducing tirade, I was steeped in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. For a few years now, I’ve been thinking about the fact that there were Jewish Kapos, which speaks to the idea of community and solidarity within that community. Now, I’m talking about the Jewish community during the Holocaust, but it also relates to the human community. I see plenty of guys dying on the street and I’m not that outraged about it!
Do I really have empathy for a guy because he goes nude cruising on a beach the way I do? Does that mean I’m obligated to show solidarity to him? I’m not sure.
The gay community is not something I believe in as such. There are multiple gay communities. When you’re in the Marais, in Paris, there is a common culture, which is related to the night, to techno, and the way people dress. But I also know homosexuals who feel very removed from that, from what’s known as “gaytitude” in France. I don’t feel that close to it myself. It was more of a matter, in this film, of questioning things that are taken for granted.
Alain Guiraudie. Courtesy of Strand Releasing.
NE There’s a comment about consumerism in the film, in that a body can disappear and nobody really cares. That comment is also in the early shot of several bodies intermingled in the woods, in which the individuals are practically unrecognizable.
AG Yes. That’s exactly how I conceived Michel, the hero—I mean, not the hero …
NE The murderer.
AG The bad guy. I conceived him as someone who was both very attractive and really scary, an ultra-free-market pleasure-seeker who takes his pleasure and disposes of its object once he has consumed it. But, in this case, he is also capable of falling in love. That’s where things get delicate.
This behavior is very much associated with the gay community, but I have the feeling that this consumerist relationship to sex really comes from the ’70s and ’80s. It’s what we eventually made of sexual liberation: a society where you have to orgasm as much as possible, consume sex, and that’s that—end of story. I made this film in the image of sexual liberation as I experienced it, which was something I thought of as highly emancipatory and which has finally come to mean that whoever doesn’t orgasm today is the ultimate loser. We live in a society that pushes us to take pleasure, that forces us to take pleasure, and sometimes, taking pleasure can be as banal as going to the supermarket.
NE Your statements are quite critical, but in Stranger by the Lake we see love that is strictly connected to the sex act.
AG I’m critical, but at the same time I wanted to make a real romantic movie, a film in which people go all the way and in which I think they are right to go all the way and morality disappears into the background. On top of that, the reason it was so important for me to show sex head-on, and even to show the actual sex act, was because I wanted to combine functioning sexual organs—which we generally categorize as dirty or pornographic—with great surges of passion and intense lovers’ embraces. That tends to be separated in cinema. It was also political to connect those two aspects.
I’m really asking myself questions: What has become of all these hedonistic places where one is very free? Or what will they become? In the US and in London—especially in English-speaking countries—people say that the cruising system I show in the film no longer exists. Now it’s Grindr and cruising online. It’s like a supermarket: you choose the type of guy you want, who isn’t too far away and can be there in five minutes. I use that too. But there was something about love in the outdoors which was very hedonistic. That has now sunken into something I find less fun, something that isn’t based so much on seduction, on a real encounter.
NE As far as romanticism goes, Franck goes all the way: to be with the man he falls in love with he is prepared to be with someone who could kill him and is a liar. It’s a representation of romanticism as the loss of self.
AG Absolutely. I’m quite attached to the romantic tradition—with the risk of losing yourself. In the romantic tradition, there’s the idea that you go all the way with the other—including into transgression—all the way to the end, and that nothing can stop desire. That was the idea: to trap my protagonist between the great moral questions and his desire. Where will one stop?
NE When you write, do you see the shots? The drowning scene, for instance, is very precise: it’s filmed in a single shot, framed very wide. To what extent do you see that when you write?
AG That was very precise. Very quickly, I saw it from a distance and from a single point of view, Franck’s. I never considered changing points of view.
I really worked on and played with Franck’s point of view and the point of view of the mise en scène. In the drowning shot, the point of view shifts, and I like that a whole lot. We start with Franck’s point of view and then we quietly shift to a more objective POV and then later we come back to Franck’s POV. That’s something I only discovered while editing though I always saw it wide, with the guys in the distance, without a long lens, and from Franck’s POV.
NE Something that touches me about the film is that it is nearly as much about friendship as it is about love, through the relationship between Franck and Henri. And in fact there are two strangers by the lake. There’s Michel—who we ultimately do know because we know he’s the murderer—whereas Henri remains a very mysterious character because we know nothing about him other than what he says, and we have no idea what this allegedly straight man is doing at the lake. I love that ambiguity.
AG And it’s totally possible that what Henri says isn’t true!
NE Especially since we know there are other liars on the beach.
AG Exactly. There are a lot of liars. For me, the relationship between Franck and Henri is also a love story. It goes beyond a friendship. It was important to me to have a counterpoint to the hypersexual relationship, a relationship that is more controlled and where we take the time to ask ourselves how we respond to another person’s body: that it might go less quickly or that things might not even happen at all. That you might never take the plunge. In my mind, Henri is not gay—I always treated him as a character who isn’t gay—but who is there out of curiosity, to talk to people, and who may be asking himself some questions. I liked the idea of constructing a love story without sex.
NE So, on the one hand you have a love story that’s purely sexual and on the other a love story with no sex at all.
AG But with a genuine romantic gesture on Henri’s part at the end. A kind of suicide/sacrifice that is really neither one nor the other—or both at once—but is in any case a romantic gesture.
NE One of the great moments in the film comes immediately after Henri goes to tell Michel that he knows he’s the murderer and Henri turns back to look at Michel as he’s about to enter the woods. It’s a moment of total ambiguity. Henri could be turning back because he wants to fuck Michel or to lure him into the woods to kill him or—as it turns out—for yet another reason.
AG I set up the whole sequence to play on that ambiguity. When Franck finds them in the bushes, we can’t tell if it’s a love scene or a fight. The ambiguity was important.
NE Another interesting thing about Henri, but also about the inspector, is that the place transforms the individual. Once the character is beside that lake, on some level he becomes a homosexual. For example, when the inspector first appears, he comes out of the bushes like a voyeur, much like the character who is always appearing to watch other guys make love.
I also noticed that both Henri and the inspector hold their bodies in a way that makes it appear like they are restraining themselves—Henri with his arms folded over his chest, the inspector with his hands joined behind his back. Were you conscious of that or is it a beautiful accident?
AG It’s a beautiful accident. I liked Henri’s position, I liked the inspector’s somewhat suspicious side, but I hadn’t picked up on the idea that it was as if they were restraining themselves.
NE Well, the other men’s genitals are visible but their bodies are totally relaxed.
AG Yes, that’s clear. In a way, the inspector is like a witness. He is there to call into question what I—and the characters—consider to be obvious and don’t explain. I’m perfectly aware that for 90% of the audience, this style of cruising is like science fiction, the fact that people could hook up so fast, so simply. With Henri, you’re more in the observer’s position.
Pierre Deladonchamps and Patrick d’AssumcÌ§ao in Stranger by the Lake. Courtesy of Strand Releasing.
NE The film was shot entirely outdoors. Yet—or maybe because of this—the lighting is magnificent. Did you film exclusively with natural light or did you add to it?
AG We shot with available light, more or less, by shooting at the right time of day. I had already really focused on that in the script: the concept of different times of day, time passing. The script included the indications “early afternoon,” “mid-afternoon,” “late afternoon,” “early twilight,” “mid-twilight,” and “late twilight.” Eventually we decided to stick to four states of available light: early afternoon, late afternoon, mid-twilight, and late twilight.
The idea was to make a film with what the sun gave us. Our work with sound followed the same idea. We took what was available. Of course, there are a few bounce cards here and there, notably for some night scenes, but the lighting department really had next to nothing. For instance, the final sequence, which takes place entirely at nightfall, was shot at the very limit of exposure, which means that we would do two takes per evening throughout the whole shoot. Ultimately, I feel that when you work within the limitations of natural light, your lighting is much richer and you have a greater variety of light than when you work with artificial light. You can’t recreate all the subtleties of the sun’s positions, of late afternoon or twilight light, with artificial light. I decided to work with natural light on this film because I wasn’t at all satisfied with shooting at night on my previous films, whether it was shooting day-for-night or artificially-lit urban nights.
NE For the sex scenes, you used body doubles, but it isn’t noticeable, whereas it is very obvious in a film like Bruno Dumont’s The Life of Jesus, where there’s an insert—no pun intended—of a penis entering a vagina. From a technical point of view, how did you conceive shooting the sex act?
AG Dumont is a reference point for me. He’s very important to me. In The Life of Jesus, the porno shot is quite disconnected from the lovers’ embrace. I didn’t want to do the same thing at all—my idea was to make things more fluid between the body doubles and the real actors. From a technical point of view, we basically repeated the choreographies. The actors would do their lovemaking, then we would film the body doubles right away, in the same location and the same light. I also didn’t cast porno actors, I cast normal actors—“normal” actors! (laughter)—actors who were ready to do that and were gay, willing to be body doubles and who looked like the actors.
NE Did you consider looking for gay actors who would be able to play the lead characters and fully perform the sex scenes?
AG Yes, of course, we asked actors. But it was no easy task to find a Michel who swam well and was willing to do the sex scenes! At one point I sat down with the actors and we talked about how far I wanted to go with them and how far they were willing to go. That’s something I totally respect. I already had body doubles in the back of my mind so I wasn’t hell-bent on finding actors who would do everything. I wanted to privilege the couple. Anyhow, I think they’re already doing enough.
NE Absolutely. We believe it. What was the experience like for the actors?
AG All of it was very rehearsed and very precise in my mind—and for all of us—before we shot. There was no question of manipulating the actors. I told them, “If there’s something you don’t like during the shoot, don’t hesitate to tell me. Even during the edit you have the right to tell me you don’t want something to be in the film.” They didn’t ask me to cut anything. I would hate to have actors who don’t deal with it well later on, particularly since it can still fuck up an actor’s career, despite the fact that people have moved forward regarding that kind of scene. People always say that you have to be careful.
NE So for the actor, they’re putting at risk not only how they want to be seen but also their career?
AG Honestly, I think that with a project like mine, an actor’s entourage advises him not to do it. We saw a lot of actors. I didn’t cast the only two who were willing to do it, but I think that an actor who agrees to play a porno scene—featuring non-simulated sex—can destroy his career.
NE That goes both for gay sex scenes and hetero sex scenes. For instance, Caroline Ducey, who starred in Catherine Breillat’s Romance, has not had the career she might have expected.
AG Breillat clearly wasn’t very honest, saying that everything really happened, whereas there wasn’t necessarily non-simulated sex. I don’t know how much of that is what messed up her career though, because it’s not like she was blowing up at the time. I should talk to her about it.
NE How did you position yourself vis-à-vis Breillat, one of the French filmmakers most associated with representing sex, in thinking about your own film?
AG Romance is kind of the contrary of what I wanted to do. There’s something very cold about the sex in that film. I didn’t want to make a film to turn people off. Sex is joyful and it’s important that sex be joyful, and—even if it leads to a real tragedy—for me, the sex act as such remains a good time. We’re not doing it to hurt ourselves.
Film Society of Lincoln Center will be presenting a full retrospective of Guiraudie’s work from January 24 to 30. The retrospective will also screen at the Harvard Film Archive January 31 through February 8.