Stranger by the Lake Runs Fri., March 7–Thurs., March 20 at SIFF

Stranger by the Lake

Runs Fri., March 7–Thurs., March 20 at SIFF Cinema Uptown. Not rated. 97 minutes.

How well do you know this guy? The same question applies to straight weddings in proper Episcopalian churches and gay cruising encounters in the woods. It’s in the latter milieu, a hothouse monoculture, that Stranger takes place. Written and directed by Alain Guiraudie, this slow, quietly disturbing French film is no thriller. Don’t expect echoes of Hitchcock or Chabrol. The killer’s identity is obvious; the guy who falls for him is handsome and kind; and the film’s sole voice of reason is a sad, chubby closet case who observes the cruising rituals from his lonely, pebbled peninsula. Here, sex is for the taut young bodies who dare dive into the lake, not for the timid old nellies who observe from the shore.

There is a lot of cock on display in Stranger—mostly flaccid, sometimes erect, occasionally spewing—but not a lot of moral passion. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) witnesses a murder-by-drowning, but reports nothing to the authorities. Neither do his cruising cohort say anything about the beach blanket and car that remain unclaimed for days afterward. Franck has a crush on the sinister, mustachioed hunk Michel (Christophe Paou); to go the cops would be to hurt his chances with him. But inevitably the police come calling. “One of your own was murdered, and you don’t even care?” asks the fidgety inspector.

The movie, like Franck, answers the question with a shrug, and that may be its greatest—and only—discomfiting quality. Michel is the shark in a pool into which men knowingly throw themselves. Whether he’s an AIDS metaphor is up to you, though this eerie complacency among the cruisers makes me think of that old ’80s slogan: “Silence equals death.” Franck and company don’t want their idyll interrupted, so they evade most of the cop’s queries. Consequences, like the outside world, don’t figure here. Guiraudie’s drama never leaves the lake, and there are only a few passing references to jobs and dinner dates in town. Franck may speak of love and the desire for a companion back home, yet he keeps coming back to the woods, where a man waits with a knife.