Thursday, March 13, 2014

Stranger by the Lake (orig. L'inconnu du Lac) [2013]

MPAA (UR would be NC-17)  ChicagoTribune (3 Stars) (4 Stars)  AVClub (B)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing listing*

ChicagoTribune (B. Sharkey) review (M. Oleszczyk ) review
AVClub (B. Kenigsberg) review

There will be plenty of people who will not be able to get past the (male) nudity and (gay) sex in this nominally unrated but NC-17 deserving French language, English subtitled film Stranger by the Lake (orig. L'inconnu du Lac) [2013] [IMDb] []* (written and directed by Alain Guiraudie [IMDb] []*) that (IMHO, if one can take a few steps back, deservingly) made a splash last year at the Cannes Film Festival and is currently making its rounds in the "art theater circuit" in the United States.  (I saw it recently at Chicago's Music Box Theater).

So why write about it here?  Well, first the film is nominally unrated and it actually would behoove parents to know that the film would definitely deserve an R and probably an NC-17 rating. Second, what if you did have a son, cousin, nephew, brother, coworker, etc ... who was gay?  You could probably do much worse than this film to get a much better sense of what their worlds were like.  And this is because, third, if one can get past all that male nudity and less but definitely present gay sex it's actually a rather good film.  And though there will be folks that will chuckle here, honestly, there is _nothing_ that forbids you from closing your eyes if a particular scene (and not just in this movie, but ANY movie) is too much for you.  And I will flatly admit that I did just close my eyes through the main 2-3-4 minute (gay) love scene in the film.  And in years past, I've closed my eyes in the closing years of my roller-coaster days, when even though I was in my 40s, as the youngest priest around I was still the one responsible for going with the youth group to the "Great America" Amusement Park here in Chicago.  One can get through a lot of things, if one occasionally just closes one's eyes.

Okay, but why do that now (close one's eyes)?  Why do that at a film?  If it's that problematic, why go see it at all?  Well it's hard to be in pastoral ministry (and honestly to be alive at all) and not know gay people.  Yes, the percentages are low, but I honestly don't believe that one could live in the United States or even across the world anymore without knowing at least one or two gay people, maybe not presently, maybe in the past.  But to know NO ONE who was gay?  And then if one has known, worked with, went to school with, been at family reunions with someone who was gay ... wouldn't one (certainly as an adult) want to know a little bit about how they lived?  And then isn't it better to have the story told by someone "in that community" rather than "outside of it"? 

Readers my blog will know that I make it a point of seeing foreign films.  They will also know that I make it a point of seeing films from (our American perspective) "problematic" countries like Iran (they have a _great cinema_ actually) and Russia (less so, because it seems that it _seems_ "less free" than Iran's) or from a lot of countries that a lot of (Americans) would not much think of like Bulgaria or Denmark or LUXEMBURG.  Last year at the Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center's "16th Annual Film Festival" I saw two _great_ romantic comedies one each from Bulgaria and Denmark and a very good crime thriller from LUXEMBURG (honestly before going, I never would have guessed).  And over the years, I've seen a great horror movie from the Dominican Republic and a Chilean/Bolivian sci-fi movie and another one from Argentina that honestly made me think about my previous (North) American presuppositions.

The recently deceased Roger Ebert who I grew-up watching spar with the above mentioned Gene Siskel (both now legendary movie critics) once called the movies an "empathy machine" that allows one to enter if for a few hours into the world of another person from another country, race or time and to see the world, if for that brief period of time, from his/her perspective.  That's one of the main reasons why I created this blog, to allow people to experience even for a short time what its like to be someone else from another place, another time, and thus to perhaps better appreciate that we're actually far more similar than we have previously thought we are and yet ... can learn from one another.

I am, after all, A CATHOLIC (member of a Church that does see itself as Universal and that ALL OF US are ultimately brothers and sisters to each other and children of the same God).  So I do see films as giving viewers the opportunity to discover a bit about "brothers and sisters" far away.

To the film ...

The entire film takes place over the course of about 10 sunny days in the summer by a rather isolated beach along a rather beautiful if, again, rather isolated lake somewhere in (I'm guessing) the southern part of France.  The beach is rather isolated because to get there one has to take a dirt road and even when one arrives, the parking lot is rather improvised.  Finally, one has to still walk a little ways through the woods to get to said beach.

So the beach is kinda "in the middle of nowhere" (at the edge of the world/civilization/etc) but once one gets there, it's (1) quite nice, (2) isolated from other beaches.  There's apparently another beach somewhere on the other side of the lake that's more accessible than this one and also frequented by more conventional types -- families, tourists, etc, but it's so far away that the clientele on either beach don't bother those of the other.  And yet (3) it's frequented.  There's never a huge crowd at this "out of the way" GAY beach.  But every day there are about 10-15 cars there parked in that improvised dirt parking lot.

So what do people do at this "out of the way, gay beach?"  Well, a lot of them tan, taking in the sun, in the nude, of course, taking an occasional swim out into the lake some ways, perhaps in part to cool off, in part perhaps to try to impress the others also nonchalantly "taking in the sun" hoping perhaps to "hook up" with one or another of them, "back in the woods" later.

As I watched the film, the quite relaxed, generally happy (perhaps not having to worry about being anyone but oneself) behavior of the (all male) beach goers at this beach both reminded me (1) of legends of pagan times.  Apparently the Greek island of Lesbos was where, gay women (lesbians...), would come to similarly "hang out" in pagan times.  Arguably the various legends of the Sirens or Lorelei or water nymphs gathering around any watering hole anywhere derived from a similar experience -- plopping down by a nice beach or meadow somewhere by a body of water, among other beautiful people (or people their same age), basking in the sun, and waiting for something to happen.  And (2) neither is this experience pleasurable to humans alone.  One thinks of all the animals from crocodiles to hippos to water-buffalo who seem to also enjoy just sitting there in the sun, by on in the water, watching the day go by, and also waiting for something opportune to happen as well.

And so it was, this little isolated beach at the farther, more inaccessible, shore of some random lake in southern France offered a lovely place for this in this loose community of men to come out, plop themselves down on their towel, take in some sun, do some swimming, perhaps pick-up some other guy, have some sex with him, come back to the beach, clean themselves off, plop down again on their towel, take in some more sun, take one last swim, dry oneself off, pick-up one's stuff, trudge back to the car and call it a day.

Okay by Catholic Church teaching, the sex these men would engage in would be definitely considered "objectively disordered" as it would habe been entered into with no particular interest in fostering any kind of lasting relationship to say nothing intrinsically not being able to create new (physical) life.   Further, as the conversations of these men themselves prior to engaging in said sexual activity would indicate, they were aware of and calculating the relative risks of said sexual activity that they were proposing to each other, these risks including the rick of infection (in the worst case with AIDS but also any number of other ailments, large and small).

Still, honestly, it was clear that no one was pressuring anyone to do what the other would not want to do ...  Just about everyone seemed to implicitly respect each other's "mellow," appreciating that they were all out there "at the edge of the world" to relax, arguably "be at one/Peace with _themselves_ and with Nature," _enjoy it_ (while it lasted) and then, as the sun set, pack up and go home.  Honestly, isn't that fascinating?  A more or less happy community of the marginalized.

Well, as one would expect, trouble eventually comes to Paradise.  While there may be a natural Beauty to life at the margins, at the edge of Civilization (Natural wonders protected by National Parks are usually not found in the cities), there are Dangers as well.    The denizens of this beach were all folks who've chosen to live at least in part at the edges of society.  And while the experience of being marginalized (because they were generally all gay) perhaps made them more open to others who were "perhaps are a bit strange," among the "Strange" would also lurk the Dangerous.

So it happened that at the end of one of those idyllic days at the Beach at the edge of the world, the film's central protagonist, a rather good looking, well mannered, relaxed, generally confident 20-something Franck (played by Pierre Delandonchamps [IMDb] []) spied on two of the day's beach-goers having what appeared to be a fight.  Except they were having their fight not on land, but some ways out swimming in the lake.  And after some time, it became clear that one of them had decided for -- from Franck's distance of 50-100-200 meter away, up already quite close to the parking lot -- some utterly unknowable reason to try to drown the other ... And since that one was stronger than the other ... he succeeded.

Stupified, Franck continued to look out at the beach and lake from his distance until he was able to recognize who of the day's beach goers had done this terrible deed.  It turned out to be a buff "Mark Spitz"-like relative newcomer to the lake named Michel (played by Christophe Paou [IMDb] []*) 

What to do?  The rest of the film plays itself out -- over the course of the next 8-9 still gentle, still breezy, still lazy, still nominally "idyllic" days -- from there.

Honestly, while certainly not for kids, and many will simply not be able to get past the nudity and the gay sex, it makes for an interesting and manifold thought provoking film.

* Foreign language webpages are most easily translated using Google's Chrome Browser.  

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