Director: Alain Guiraudie (France). Year of release: 2013
A makeshift car park which at first looks like it’s an arena for dogging. A man drives down, leaves his car and walks down to the lake. On the beach are exclusively men, mostly nude, with some in just their bathing trunks. The man nods a few Hellos and sits down next to an older, heftier man, looking not unlike a gallic Johnny Vegas. They introduce themselves. Our hero, Franck, used to sell fruit and veg but is now drifting. The older Henri is a lumberjack on holiday.
Henri used to sit on the other side of the lake with his ex-girlfriend. Now that they’ve broken up, he sits among the largely nude gay men, always wearing shorts and usually keeping his top on. He’s not gay himself – though of course he’s occasionally slept with men – but being in a cruising area helps him deal with his social awkwardness. It’s a lot easier to start talking to people when you’re in a cruising area.
Franck enjoys chatting to Henri, but not as much as he likes going into the nearby woods for casual sex. He’s not too keen about the man who stands, trousers down, wanking opposite the couples he watches copping off, but I guess that’s the price you have to pay. Chatting with Henri appears to be occasional light relief in amongst the hedonism. Henri occasionally suggests going for a meal or beer afterwards, and though Franck occasionally says yes, he never looks likely to deliver.
Franck spies Michel, a man with a Tom Selleck moustache and a boyfriend. The latter is only a temporary problem, as one night, while walking through the woods, Franck watches Michel taking the boyfriend out into the lake and drowning. Rather than reacting by thinking that this might show that Michel is a little high maintenance, Franck becomes even more obsessed, and it’s not long before he and Michel are awful hopping off into the woods together.
Not long after, a body is dragged out of the lake, and a police inspector turns up, asking awkward questions. Franck and Michel both give slightly unconvincing answers, and the detective keeps returning to ask awkward questions. You feel that something important may arise from the man from a quite different community asking questions of people in an area where they prefer to remain anonymous. It never really does.
Der Fremde am See won a number of awards, and was praised by critics for its cinematic language and use of imagery. This is another way of saying not much happens. Or that something happens, and then the same thing happens again. And again. Franck goes to the beach. If Henri is there, he stops for a chat. If Michel is there, they have a fondle, or something more explicit. If not, there’s always the backup of popping into the woods and picking up someone there.
Nonetheless, this is not a salacious film, quite the reverse. You’re not sure whether it is trying to outrage, but for all the sex scenes, it feels distinctly unerotic. We see an awful lot of penises. Mostly limp, generally minding their own business, hanging down on the bodies of men who prefer to sunbathe nude. Notwithstanding the implied exhibitionism, I had never realised just how ugly penises are. Floppy, scrawny things just lying there. What is in it for straight women or gay men?
On the positive side, this is a depiction of a lifestyle that is rarely shown on screen, and makes a change from suburban middle class chats around the dinner table. On the other hand, it shows a very dreary life. I get it that this may well be what director Alain Guiraudie is trying to depict, but if I want repetitive dull dreariness, I can get this at home.
I gradually moved from being quite intrigued about where this was taking us to not really caring. By the time we got to the inexplicable ending, I wasn’t really paying attention- The film stopped doing anything new fairly early on. After that, it was a matter of holding on and waiting for it to be all over. It’s billed as a thriller, but at no sense are you in any doubt what is happening or what is likely to happen. To be honest, I’ve got other places that I need to be.
Nonetheless, some of the scenes look great, not least the long distance view of Michel drowning his original lover. You can see enough to grasp what is going on, but are sufficiently distanced both physically and emotionally to be relatively unmoved. This almost makes it credible that Franck would continue to pursue Michel, despite what he has just witnessed.
I think the main difference between me and the critics who got overly excited about the film is that they seemed to care about the characters. Henri is interesting, but kept to the periphery, The others are all self-regarding, preening and deeply forgettable. When they reach the stage that they come into danger, your (or at least my) immediate reaction is that they are vain fictional characters, and let them suffer. Which is fine if you like that sort of thing. For me, “Meh!”