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Review: “Stranger by the Lake” turns blunt sex and noir into a provocative, haunting brew

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There’s no mystery to the central whodunit of Stranger by the Lake. The killer is Michel (Christophe Paou), and the murder happens onscreen, in front of our eyes. It also happens in front of the eyes of Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), who doesn’t report the crime. Instead, he starts dating the perpetrator.

Well, “dating” is a coy verb for what goes on in writer-director Alain Guiraudie’s sexually blunt, unnerving homage to a certain kind of sang-froid filmmaking of the 20th century. Think Alfred Hitchcock at his chilliest, or René Clément’s Purple Noon, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley. Only, you know, with erect penises and close-up money shots found on websites most people race to erase from their Internet history.

Stranger doesn’t mean to be a turn-on, though. It’s a tease on another, existential level — a sunlit noir. The film unfolds entirely in and around a French lake that’s perched somewhere between picturesque and drab. The most striking scenery is human: a daily collection of sprawled, sauntering naked men, soaking up sun and each others’ attention, sliding away into the undergrowth for a little al fresco action.

Franck is a handsome young fellow about whom we learn very little. He comes to the lake most every day, gently deflecting trolls in the bushes who don’t turn him on. He befriends a hefty, lonely, straight fellow named Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), who says he’s there for the solitude, recovering from a breakup with his girlfriend. They share rumors that the lake is full of scary giant fish, but the real predator is the one on two legs, Michel.

The plot of Stranger is minimal. Days tick by. Cruisers come and go. Michel’s sometime boyfriend disappears, and a nerdy inspector (Jérôme Chappatte) turns up and starts asking awkward questions about the missing man. Franck and Michel, meanwhile, hook up in a handful of explicit sex scenes (shot with body doubles). While you start to wonder what motivated Michel’s crime, you wonder even more what’s driving Franck — besides the outdoor erotica — as he repeatedly puts himself in potentially compromising, fatal situations. Is he testing Michel? Fate? Himself?

Guiraudie’s coolly uninflected direction and decision not to employ any emotion-prompting music on the soundtrack turn that famous combination — Eros and Thanatos, sex and death — into something clinical, austere and strangely haunting.

After its slow-burn build, Stranger by the Lake rushes to an audacious non-ending. The possible disappointment you might feel at its speed and abruptness is likely to modify slightly when you meditate on why the filmmaker chooses to leave his characters, and us, quite literally in the dark. There are no answers here, only questions.

Stranger by the Lake. With Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou, Patrick d’Assumçao. Written and directed by Alain Guiraudie. Unrated. In French with subtitles. 97 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.