(Alain Guiraudie, France, 2013)
A compressed, elegant thriller that upon close inspection discloses subtle layers, like a polished sedimentary rock. The uppermost layer is that of a sexual thriller, and at this it works marvelously. Tense as hell, edited with Hitchcockian precision. Beneath this is an incisive commentary on sociopolitical themes: queer life, the legacy of bigotry and persecution, the pressure-cooker that makes for a subculture that is both dangerous and honest, a haven and a prison, a paradise and a wasteland. The are moments of erotic straightforwardness and erotic bliss that are, I think, designed with gorgeous sincerity, purely celebratory in nature. The lake and it's environs as a kind of Arcadian wonderland of male homosexual desire, playful, open, free of shame or fear. This is the film at its most happily meditative, smitten with the natural beauty of lakes, rocks, trees, and naked male bodies.
But boundaries are doomed to be porous. The outer world cannot be kept at bay forever, and the inner world, with its snarls of conflicting impulses, will out. Love becomes possessive. Desire clouds judgement. Solidarity only goes so far; here, by this lake, it is repeatedly trumped by lust, and also by fear - fear of too much visibility, fear of rejection, but strangely, very little fear of death. Not many critics seem to have noted that the action of the film (pun intended) is darkened by the long shadow of the AIDS crisis, itself a byproduct of social neglect, fear, and hatred. Michel, then, besides being a statuesque god of sex, is also an avatar of the danger inherent to gay sex of a certain era; the threat that any unknown partner could carry a death sentence. We see hints of this - a squabbling over the lack of protection (Franck is blithely unconcerned with wearing a rubber, but one of his partners is more circumspect), the indeterminate time period (although likely contemporary, there are no specific markers of when or where this is taking place), and the preference for giddy barebacking shared by Michel and Franck. We're at least partly removed from the height of the crisis, but the acts of forgetting and remembering are subject to human capacities and priorities, which are shown here to be slippery at best.
Finally, this symbolic dimension connects us to the old imponderables - the proximity of sex and danger, the power plays that cannot be fully purged from intercourse, the existential quandaries posed by our basic needs and our better judgement. Sex as holy rapture, sex as one-way ticket to hell, sex as haunted always by death. Nature giggles at our binaries and our boundaries - straight or gay, naughty or nice. Desire is as undeniable and inarticulate as a tree (or, as Giraudie is eager to remind us, as an erect penis.) We can play at being naturists, but in the wild, we are never far from peril. Nobody knows what monsters lurk in the lake, or what secrets a stranger holds, which may be exactly what turns us on. On a strange lake, or in a strange forest, among strangers, we're all cruising.