GLORIA and STRANGER BY THE LAKE



<!–[if !mso]>st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } <![endif]–>

Gloria, a character study of a divorced women in her forties written by Sebastian Lelo and Gonzalo Massa, and directed by the latter, is the Chilean entry in the Foreign Language Film Category for the Oscars.  In full disclosure, I should mention right off that my friend and the audience loved this movie.  Actually, he found it “delightful”.  Me?  Eh, not so much.
How you feel about the movie will probably depend a lot upon how you feel about the character herself, and, yes, I must admit, I did rather like this Gloria.  She’s perky and takes risks.  She sings to the radio while driving in a way that’s a little embarrassing because, you know, you’ve done it, too, you know you have.  She wears these incredibly goofy, over size glasses that look kind of neat and retro and fun.  There’s something about her that’s quite ingratiating.  And Pauline Garcia plays her with a lot of warmth and empathy, smiling her toothsome smile, as she makes her days of well, I don’t know if quiet desperation is the term, but she does seem vaguely unsatisfied about something in her life, though the context is a bit wibbly, wobbly as far as I was concerned.
But then the movie stopped working for me.  She meets a man and starts a romance.  And on a date, something happens.  He gets a phone call.  And even before he answered the phone, I said to myself, “Okay, I got it, I know where this is going, I know every twist and turn that is going to happen here” and it became a film I felt I had seen a million times before.  No surprises.  No chances taken.  The same old, same old.   And it seems to take forever to get there.
Her date does some awful things to her, true, and I felt very bad for her (walks of shame are often only amusing when you tell the story in retrospect).  But the ending is one of those where you are asked to root for the character because she refuses to let tragedy, the continued awfulness of life, the inherent sadness of existential existence get her down.  No, by God, she’s going to say yes to life and she dances triumphantly to a song with her same name (you know the one). 
And the ending works.  For a moment.  I’m really caught up in it until I realize, “Wait, what tragedy, what awfulness of life, what inherent sadness of existential existence.  She had a couple of bad dates” (well, one was more than just bad, but still I stand by my basic point). And to be ruthlessly honest, as the credits rolled, I felt I had been had to a degree. 
Still, it’s a perfectly nice story and you could certainly do a lot worse.
A man calmly strips completely naked, cock and balls swaying in the sun, and walks around the woods looking to fuck or get fucked by another man while other naked men do the same thing.  One man jacks himself off, his hard cock shooting out cum, while another man kisses him.  Another man goes down on two other men, sucking their dicks at the same time.  Another man fucks one guy, then turns around and lets the other guy fuck him.  Two guys sixty nine each other, their mouths going down on each other’s hard, erect cocks.   Another guy lowers his shorts and plays with his cock, trying to get hard, masturbating himself, while watching two guys trying to fuck, until he is told by one of them to take off, while the other guy sees no harm in being watched.
If any of my phrasing disturbs you, if any of that sort of activity makes you uncomfortable, then you should definitely NOT go see the exciting and riveting French film Stranger By the Lake, a new thriller that takes place at a remote cruising area populated by gay men in the 1980’s (I think, the time period is a bit unclear, but I’m pretty sure that’s when it happens).   Please, save your time and money, and go see Mary Poppins or something.  Because Stranger… is one of the frankest, most realistic and uncensored views of gay male sex you are likely to see in movies for some time.  The writer and director Alain Guiradie has not hidden anything in the shadows or cleverly staged it all to make it more palatable.  He has put it all out full monty as they say, and without the use of fake genitalia as in Blue is the Warmest Color (though at one point, I do suspect a stuntcock was employed).  So beware and be warned.
Stranger… is a film that does something that I look for in films.  It takes you into a world that you may never have seen before.   But more importantly, it completely realizes that world.  It doesn’t try to hide anything or coddle you as an audience member.  It is as complete and honest a look, without apology or any attempt to defend it, as you will likely ever see.   It is told from the viewpoint of someone on the inside looking out and is as much this insider’s look at a culture with its own rules, language and mores as The Apostle is about Evangelical charismatics; Goodfellows is about the mob; and The Nun’s Story is about life in a convent.
And this means looking at men who don’t have the greatest of bodies, with stomachs sagging and faces brutally revealing their ages.  It means showing men desperately trying for a connection with sad and hopeless looks, knowing they are not what anybody really wants (or actually, they are not what the men who they want want—they wouldn’t have sex with people like themselves either if they could help it).  It shows people who are willing to make fools of themselves, knowing they are going to be turned down before they even approach someone.  It means showing sex in all its pornographic detail.
But it also shows the excitement of existing in that milieu, of being free to go naked, of making those incredibly thrilling connections, of fucking in the broad daylight with a complete stranger while everybody watches.  It’s a scene where sex is always and everywhere in the air.  And it’s not like sex anywhere else, it’s not Kansas, anymore, Toto.  It’s an incredibly erotic and passionate world while at the same time an equally depressing and frustrating one.   
But Stranger… is also a thriller.  It’s been compared to Hitchcock, but for me, I think the pacing is a little leisurely for that and I think a more apt comparison is the great French filmmaker Claude Chabrol, especially his film La Boucher, about a serial killer at loose in a small French town.   Stranger… is a film full of the wind making eerie sounds as it rushes through the waving trees; a film full of languorous afternoons by a lazy lake; a film filmed with setting suns and impenetrable darkness. 
It’s a film where you see shot after shot of the hero arriving and parking his car, a series of scenes that seems pointless at first, but actually says much: not only does it tell you the area is a place where the same people come to every day, so everyone almost always has the same parking place, it’s also a series of scenes that when something goes a little awry, you notice—a certain car never leaves and is always there, all through the nights, day after day, until one day, it’s suddenly not there anymore. 
The story revolves around Franck (solidly acted by Pierre Deladonchamps), a very good looking young man who starts coming to the lake more often than usual because he lost some hours at work and has nothing else to do.  He’s one of those attractive men who is democratic in the way he treats other people—he’ll see a much older, heavy set man, who is anything but handsome (in this case Henri, played by Patrick d’Assumcao, who for some reason made me think this is the actor you get if you can’t get Gerard Depardieu), and he’ll casually go and sit by him and talk, never ever passing judgment on the older man’s looks.  It will never occur to Franck that there is anything odd about this, though no one else at his level of attractiveness would do the same.  He’ll even become your friend and have dinner with you. 
Of course, he does it without realizing (though possibly he does very deep down) that he is causing a certain discomfort in Henri (who instantly thinks, what is this good looking young man sitting down and talking to me for, what does he want, is he teasing me, does he want money for sex, is he truly attracted to me).  So Franck is also a bit of a heartless cad as well.  And he’s a bit less democratic in sex.  He won’t have anything to do with the sagging bellied men who are old enough to be his father.  But he’ll let them watch without losing a hard on over it and if they play their cards right, he might let them give him a blow job. 
But one day he sees a stranger, Michel (played with a certain smoldering sexiness by Christophe Paou) and there is just something about this stranger that Franck can’t get over.  And they talk, but, for various issues, don’t have sex.  And then Franck sees this stranger do something horrific.  But Franck finds himself paralyzed about it all, not able to act.  This turn may be hard to accept, but I bought it, and I think I bought it because I don’t think even Franck fully understands why he acts the way he does.  So instead of going to the police, he begins a regular sexual encounter with Michel, and the passion is so incredible, it just confuses him more about what to do. 
And in the end, I found myself fully investing myself in this relationship, as hard as it may be to believe at first.   And this decision of Franck’s leads to subtly growing tensions and breathtaking scenes like Michel asking Franck to go for a swim when there is nobody, nobody, at the lake to see them.  At first Franck refuses, knowing what has happened before, but then he has to, he has to go out to Michel, he has to know whether Michel will do to him what he did to the other person.  And when he doesn’t, Franck is both thrilled and terrified.  And even more confused.
The story gets more suspenseful as a police inspector starts hovering around, always showing up at the wrong moment, to ask questions.  He’s like something out of a George Simenon novel and provides some comic relief along with philosophical observations about the cruising lifestyle while being the character that forces the climax (no pun intended) as he puts more and more pressure on all the characters to do something.   He’s played by Jerome Chapatte, and though he gets the job done, he may look and walk and act a bit too much like Jacques Tati than is ultimately good for the movie.
And the film ends on one of those existential, European notes of ambiguity.  I’m not sure I agree with the finale, though normally I love such resolutions because that is often the way life is.  But here it makes an earlier action of Michel and Henri pointless, which is a little unsatisfactory.  But at the same time, it also made the movie hard to forget.
Advertisements

2 Comments

  1. As someone who just didn't care for “Stranger By The Lake” at all – about the only things that “worked” for me were the character of “Henri” and the comic-relief voyeur – it was interesting reading your review. It makes me realize, once again, that what you bring to a movie as an audience member is just as important as the movie itself.

    I was bored with the movie way before the “turn” in the story. The gay cruising culture isn't terribly interesting to me as as a milieu. It just feels like cut-and-dried mating laid bare (Shocker – in a world based on appearances, good looking people have sex with other good looking people, and ugly people have sex with ugly people, or else they don't have sex at all…unless a good looking guy “throws them a bone”, pun intended). And in gay or straight movies, there doesn't feel like anything particularly new about seeing the depiction of meaningless sex – I would have found it much more interesting if Franck and Henri has actually had a relationship, because they clearly liked each other (I wished we'd seen them have dinner together – I think they would have had more interesting conversation than anything we got in the movie).

    So since I wasn't particularly interested in the world we were in (It seemed mostly sad and ugly to me), I kept waiting for something interesting to emerge FROM it.

    And nothing did.

    I knew the movie wasn't grabbing me when I started wishing I could see another location beyond “The World's Most Uncomfortable Beach”. I didn't feel “immersed in a world”, I just felt like they must have gotten that location on the cheap, and didn't have the dough to go anywhere else.

    I wanted Franck to be a more interesting character than he was, but he was barely a character at all – beyond being good-looking, and a vaguely nice guy (Hanging out with Henri, letting the creepy voyeur blow him), what did we know about him? I found him tremendously dull.

    So the movie was boring me up till the “turn”, where it completely broke my will – No normal human (Gay, Straight, or Whatever) sees what Franck sees and not only has sex with the guy, but craves a relationship with him. That's not real life, that “the movies”. To me, that turns him from a bland leading man to a sociopath.

    And because I was way “out of the movie” at that point, the Inspector just made me wonder, “Is he SUPPOSED to be comic? Cause if he is, that feels like a misfire at this point in the story. And if he's not, the Director should have told him to stop WALKING like that”.

    And all the wondering around in blackness, at a beach you know has no lighting – Okay, the movie may be taking place in the eighties, but if memory serves, flashlights had already been invented at that point (Sounds nitpicky, perhaps, but I just don't think people wander around in scary darkness if they don't have to).

    For me, it just didn't work. At all. But I'm willing to concede that part of it not working was simply “What I was bringing to the party”.

  2. Thanks for reading the review and thanks for your lengthy response. The friends I went with wholeheartedly are in your camp. It didn't work for them at all. But it was my favorite film (maybe next to The Great Beauty) at AFI. I know what you mean about the lighting. One issue is that the movie seemed to be done in digital and the director didn't correct for the darkness (I don't think the scenes were as light as they were supposed to be). And at the end, even if Franck had thought to bring a flashlight with him, he would have left it in the car and wouldn't have had time to get it. One usually doesn't take a flashlight when one goes cruising in the dark. To some degree it defeats the purpose.

So tell me what you think.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s